Heartland Park: The Vote

Too often in the history of our community we have made what I would consider to be economic blunders, or generally shot ourselves in the foot. In years gone by, I’m told we had the chance to build the ExpoCenter downtown between two hotels. However, because the folks who owned them could have made quite a bit of revenue off it, the decision was made to build it in the old fairgrounds. Now, one of those two hotels sits abandoned and is one of the first things visitors to our community see as they enter our downtown. Not to mention the fact, that apparently we spent 10 years or so trying to get a hotel built next to the ExpoCenter. Blinded by the opportunity of someone else, we lost sight of the big picture for our community. I expect the same has now happened with Heartland Park. Blinded by the dissatisfaction of the current operator, we have voted down the safety-net that would have helped pay off the existing debt and given us the ability to control the immediate future of this vital economic engine.

Having said that, I do admit it is possible that the private sector could come charging in and save us. As I said in the council meeting life is all about risk, and leaving the Park in the hands of the private sector is one we must now take. I for one am hoping and praying that they do come in and keep it going. As far I understand for now though, it’s up to CoreFirst, and the judicial system to litigate it out. I expect, at least for the time being, the park going dark is almost certain. Let’s just hope, it’s not forever.

I voted yes tonight to help protect the jobs of the folks whose businesses support Heartland Park and the racing industry in Topeka. I voted yes to protect the taxpayers of Topeka who now must cover the debt, possibly with nothing to show for it. It was a tough vote, and I’ve lost quite a bit of sleep over it in the past week. But at the end of the day, I feel it was the right thing to do for the future of our City.

What’s done is done and now it’s time to move on. Thanks to everyone who contacted me to share an opinion. I look forward to hearing from you again on the next tough call.

Some Thoughts on Heartland Park

Quite a few folks have contacted me regarding Heartland Park. I thought I’d take a moment and share some of my thoughts and a few facts I’ve been given by the staff at the City.

To begin with, this is a bad situation plain and simple. It was a bad deal when we made it in the 80’s and it still a bad deal more than 20 years later. Our primary goal here is to take a bad situation and try to make it less impactful to our city.

Here are some of the facts as I understand them:

  • The Reversionary Interest clause at the root of this issue was created in 1988.
  • We still owe $10.6 million in outstanding bonds issued in 2003.
  • The 50/50 match to the STAR bonds (both the current and proposed future ones) is the responsibly of the track’s potential operators all of whom are aware of it.
  • Legally, there is no real option to deal with the current reversionary interest clause other than a buy out.
  • According to the Legislative Division of Post Audit, the economic impact of Heartland Park is about $53 million.

My opinion as of now, is that we should issue the bonds and take control of the park, and get it in the hands of someone who is willing and able to operate it.

First off, if the plan works the way the Department of Commerce, the public accounting firm of Douthett & Company, Legislative Post Audit, and the City finance team say it should, then we won’t need to continue diverting funds from the mill levy to cover it. We owe $10.6 million on it and this is a way to pay that off without the need to raise taxes. That’s extremely important at a time where every dollar counts to families.

Second is the economic impact. Heartland Park has the potential to become a major economic engine for the community if operated correctly. With the right team and events, it could become a major revenue producer in the City. We’ve already built the facility, why not put it to good use?

I know many folks are upset that we would be bailing out Jayhawk Racing, but I understand most of the money he would get would have to go pay off the 80 some odd other business (many of whom are local) that he still owes.

The City has posted quite a bit of additional information on their website http://www.Topeka.org/HPT. I’d encourage anyone who would like to learn more to start there.

I don’t like this situation any more then the next guy, but if we’re going to break the patterns of our past that have held our community back for decades, we’re going to have to make tough, smart, educated decisions, and invest in our future for kayaking. Please post your comments and questions to my Facebook Page and let’s discuss.