If voters give the Royals a new stadium, some Crossroads businesses face tough choices | Opinion

Almost 30 years ago, Daryl Penner and several downtown business owners found themselves in the middle of a furious battle.

City Hall and developers wanted to seize their properties for something called Centertainment, a multi-block assembly of bars, shops, hotels and movie theaters downtown. Today you know it as the Power & Light District.

Penner and his colleagues thought it unfair for the city to take their businesses and provide the land to another private entity. They waged a highly visible anti-Centertainment campaign, but they lost: In 1998, Kansas City voters endorsed the project. Penner’s business eventually moved away.

So you can imagine his reaction when the Royals recently announced plans to bulldoze parts of the East Crossroads for a new baseball stadium just a few blocks east and south of the district.

“It brings back painful, painful memories,” he told me in a Facebook message. “I definitely feel sorry for the small businesses down there, as many will be wiped out and put through legal and development hell.”

He’s right about that, of course. If the 3/8-cent sales tax passes a month from now, the businesses in the footprint of the new stadium face a bleak future in their current locations. They can continue the fight, but they will likely lose.

Yes, they’ll be furious, but most voters and taxpayers will shrug. It’s happened before: More than 100 small homes, farms and businesses fell to make room for the Kansas Speedway project in the 1990s. More recently, mobile home residents were forced to relocate to make room for a new Jackson County jail.

In those cases, and many others, resistance to “progress” has made headlines, but hasn’t stopped the projects. Kansas Citians say they’re sympathetic to home and business owners facing removal, but they rarely vote that way.

Instead, in about a month, voters will make a simple cost-benefit calculation: How much will I contribute to this plan, and what will I get in return?

Sometimes that calculation is easy. The new airport passed overwhelmingly because the cost for non-flyers was zero — essentially, a new airport for free. That isn’t the case for the new downtown baseball stadium, or a renovated Arrowhead Stadium. The sales tax extension would take money from Jackson Countians’ pockets for decades.

At the same time, for many in the county, there is little benefit — they can’t afford tickets to either stadium, and don’t work for either team, or for businesses nearby that might make money from the projects. Some voters may not be sports fans. Baseball fans in eastern Jackson County will have to travel farther to see a game.

To answer the cost-benefit concern, the teams have said the stadiums will bring “economic development”: construction jobs, more tax revenues, new construction. Every serious study of such claims has found them wanting, but it won’t stop the pro-tax stadium lobby from making the argument.

(The Chiefs gave the game away Wednesday when they said the Truman Sports Complex was “not worthy of developing” with an entertainment district. What? Aren’t stadiums always economic engines? Apparently not.)

The football club’s president also claimed Arrowhead was built with better concrete than Kauffman. Gosh. The Chiefs are much better at football than they are at politics.

The teams will claim an “intangible” benefit to the community, where they stand on firmer ground. The Chiefs and Royals are integral to the region’s self-identity and sense of community. Opponents, including those in the East Crossroads, will have to make the case that the intangibles aren’t worth $2 billion.

The results will hinge on who makes the stronger argument.

Daryl Penner seems to have made up his mind. He’s made his peace with the Power & Light District, which cost him his downtown business. But he isn’t a fan of downtown baseball.

“I will NEVER GO,” his message said. “To add a stadium is unnecessary, almost foolish.”

Dave Helling is a former Kansas City Star reporter, columnist and editorial board member.