Community relations fight erupts over $1bn Kansas City Airport

Kansas City Council thought it could get a new, billion-dollar terminal to modernise its sprawling old international airport without spending a dime, but the choice of who will build it has turned into a legal and community-relations minefield.

Several large consortiums have been lobbying for the right to build the terminal and recoup their costs through airline usage fees, but a council committee’s choice last week of Edgemoor Infrastructure and Real Estate, of Bethesda, Maryland, has been challenged by a coalition of civil rights and minority groups who say Edgemoor has not committed to hiring enough minority business enterprises.

They say that if Edgemoor doesn’t commit to a goal of 40% minority representation on the project their coalition of groups, including the Black Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City, the Committee to Abolish Poverty and others, they will reject the terminal proposal, which is being put to the electorate in a special ballot on 7 November.

Edgemoor’s current proposal offers 20% minority-owned business participation for construction and 17% for professional services, say reports.

This gauntlet thrown down by the Urban League of Greater Kansas City this week sows yet more confusion on the scheme, which started happily enough in May when the "home team" consortium led by Burns & McDonnell, a local contractor, conceived the terminal project off its own bat and approached the council with an offer to build it without using public funds.

A memorandum of understanding was signed on 12 May but that cosy arrangement was disrupted when Aecom, the US’ largest engineer, wrote to Kansas City urging it to open the tender to other bids in what is known in the industry as as a "Swiss challenge".

Aecom, Jones Lang LaSalle and Edgemoor Infrastructure then piled into the race.

In a surprise move last week (6 September) a six-member council committee passed over Burns & McDonnell and said that Edgemoor’s consortium should be given the contract. That team includes local firm Clarkson Construction and the renowned Chicago architect Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

The committee spurned the "home team" of Burns & McDonnell on the grounds that its financial proposal was inconsistent with the city’s master bond ordinance. Kutak Rock, the Kansas City’s bond counsel, raised concerns that the plan would prioritise new private debt over the city’s existing debt from an early 2000s improvement project. Burns & McDonnell disputes the board’s decision.

But it’s not over for the home team. Burns & McDonnell has political leverage in the form of agreements with 13 minority and women-owned firms that prevent those firms from negotiating with Edgemoor, reports the Kansas City Star, and several of those firms told the Star they are happy to abide by the agreements.

Next week Kansas City councillors are scheduled to vote to ratify the committee decision to endorse Edgemoor. After that, the choice will have to be ratified by the public vote on 7 November.

This puts councillors in a bind because if they reject their committee’s recommendation of Edgemoor next week they cannot just pick another consortium, warned the city manager Troy Schulte yesterday in an interview with the Star. Instead the whole process will have to be restarted, with bidders given 90 days to submit new proposals. Otherwise, Schulte said, Edgemoor could sue.

Starting the process again would mean the electorate ratifying the new terminal on 7 November without seeing any designs or details.

Meanwhile, the airlines that use the airport have come out in favour of the team led by Burns & McDonnell.

After the Kansas City Star asked a consortium of airlines that use KCI which bidder they would prefer, they responded: "We are a strong supporter of the Kansas City community and our preference would be to stay local and work with KCI Hometown team."

They added, however, that they would be happy to work with any of the bidders for the terminal.

Image: The airport’s airlines are backing the "home team" (KCI)

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