Legislative auditors skeptical Prairiefire development can pay off $64.8M in bond debt

STAR bond success: $150M MLS stadium debt retired in less than seven years

By: - January 22, 2022 11:29 am
The Kansas Legislature's auditors say the Prairiefire development in Overland Park financed with $65 million in STAR bonds issued under a state program is in jeopardy of defaulting on debt because it won't likely retire the bonds in the required 20 years. (Screen capture/Kansas Department of Commerce report)

The Kansas Legislature’s auditors say the Prairiefire development in Overland Park financed with $65 million in STAR bonds issued under a state program is in jeopardy of defaulting on debt because it won’t likely retire the bonds in the required 20 years. (Screen capture/Kansas Department of Commerce report)

TOPEKA — The Overland Park retail, office, hotel and residential development attached to the Prairiefire museum struggles to attract out-of-state tourists and could default on $64.8 million in bond debt issued through a state economic development program under scrutiny by the Legislature.

Auditors with the Legislature said their analysis of the Prairiefire project built with capital raised through issuance in 2012 of Sales Tax Revenue Bonds, or STAR bonds, indicated the project wasn’t generating enough sales tax revenue to repay debts in the required 20-year period. Originally, $64.9 million in bonds were issued for the project. Debt remaining to be paid: $64.8 million.

Auditors predicted it could take until 2046 or 2104 to produce sufficient sales tax revenue to retire the Prairiefire obligations held by the city of Overland Park.

“They are in danger of default,” said Andy Brienzo, of the Legislature’s audit division. “We can’t say that definitively. There is some additional development that is slated to happen.”

Bob North, general counsel with the Kansas Department of Commerce, said he didn’t share skepticism of auditors but also couldn’t guarantee success of Prairiefire, which includes a museum for traveling natural history exhibits. The commerce department has approved 19 STAR bond projects since the 1990s for Atchison, Garden City, Salina, Wichita, Topeka, Goddard, Manhattan and other cities.

He said museums, racetracks, sports facilities and other venues build with of $1.1 billion in bond proceeds were intended to raise the quality of life for benefit of Kansans and to attract tourists to the state. He said the objective of STAR bonds wasn’t simply generation of tax revenue.

“If they were, we’d take our money and build a bunch of Walmarts,” North said. “The goal of STAR bonds is to create attractions that are going to bring visitors to the state.”

The House and Senate commerce committees this week invited the Kansas Division of Legislative Post Audit to outline findings of a 2021 audit of STAR bond initiatives. Auditors discovered only three projects outside of the mega-development at Village West in Wyandotte County that fulfilled the objective of elevating tourism.

“STAR bonds are a very, very effective and strong economic development tool,” North said. “They’ve worked well in most instances. I’m not going to tell you every project is perfect.”

Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican, said she was disappointed with the quality of information submitted to the state by STAR bond recipients.

“As we look at the annual reports that were submitted to the Department of Commerce,” she said, “some of it doesn’t give real data. It might say visitation went up 30%. Well, 30% from what number?”

Sen. Jeff Pittman, D-Leavenworth, said the assessment of STAR bonds by legislative auditors was “a particularly narrow evaluation.” It was based on estimates of out-of-state visitors and documentation of sales tax revenue but didn’t take into account other evidence of economic development such as the multiplier effect of those new businesses, he said.

“I have some issues with some of this,” Pittman said.

The latest STAR bond annual report submitted to the Legislature by the Department of Commerce pointed to success of Children’s Mercy Park where the Sporting Kansas City professional soccer team plays. It’s become one of the state’s top tourist destinations.

To build the MLS soccer complex, $150 million in STAR bonds were issued in 2010. That debt was paid off in less than seven years.

Jake Reid, president and chief executive officer of Sporting Kansas City, said the franchise derived significant benefit from the STAR bond law and the private-public partnership with the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and the state of Kansas.

“We’re the second-smallest market in our league, yet we often times consistently punch above our weight class in terms of on-field results as well as the business results,” Reid said. “On average, we drive over 600,000 per year through Children’s Mercy Park.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.