The Kansas City Council should take as much time as it needs to decide if Vantage Airport Group is the right company to run concessions in the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport.
The full details of Vantage’s proposal were made public only last week. Further testimony is expected Wednesday.
The full City Council should not — repeat, should not — vote on final approval of the contract this Thursday, as some have suggested.
Instead, council members should work to understand the proposed contract with Vantage, and the reasons the Canadian company was recommended for the lucrative development agreement.
It must also examine a potential conflict of interest involving Kansas City Councilman Dan Fowler.
The concessions contract has been under review by a special committee for most of this year. There were five bidders, including Vantage. Each submitted comprehensive proposals that the committee secretly reviewed.
Its members eventually recommended Vantage, and a 15-year contract was drawn up.
But the public has no way of knowing if the other bids were better. Council members are just now learning those details, another reason why the rush to approve the Vantage deal should be slowed down.
We’re particularly interested in the relationships among Vantage, public relations consultant Jason Parson, his company and Councilman Fowler.
Parson and Associates is a development partner with Vantage on the concessions proposal. The firm has also worked on Fowler’s two council campaigns: In 2019, Fowler for Kansas City paid Parson and Associates nearly $20,000 for campaign work.
Fowler was on the special committee that selected Vantage. “No, there was not a conflict,” he said in an email. “Parson & Associates’ role in my campaign ended in June 2019.”
The people of Kansas City should decide if Fowler is right. We think he should recuse himself from any final vote on the concessions contract.
The City Council should also seek more information about Vantage itself. How will the company make money from this contract? How much will it make?
Two years ago, Vantage Airport Group was part of a consortium that submitted an application to lease St. Louis Lambert International Airport. St. Louis was thinking about privatizing the airport, an effort that eventually collapsed.
Is Vantage interested in running KCI privately? “Vantage has lent its expertise to 31 airports in its 26-year history,” the company’s website says, “taking 20 of those airports from public to private management.”
The proposed agreement with Vantage specifically allows the city to assign the concessions contract to “any private entity that assumes the obligations … to manage the Airport or the New Terminal.”
Kansas City Council members should make it clear: KCI is not and will not be for sale or rent.
There are also well-founded questions about the product mix, and cost, for the new shops, bars and restaurants at the airport. After security and ease of use questions are addressed, passengers and visitors will grade KCI on the quality of amenities for travelers.
We know the proposed Vantage agreement allows vendors to sell some goods at a 15% markup over “street price.” (Interestingly, prices will be measured against the prices at a QuikTrip on Barry Road). A $10 beer would cost $11.50 at the airport, for example. Is that comparable with other airports?
Finally, council members have raised important questions about the product mix, local vendors’ involvement and promises of minority- and women-owned participation in stores and shops. Those concerns should be addressed.
To be clear: We’ve seen nothing to date to suggest the Vantage bid is substantially flawed. The procurement process appears to have been followed. Vantage is an established firm with a (somewhat limited) track record. We’re not suggesting the City Council rebid the deal, which it has a right to do.
But the agreement is moving too fast. A two- or three-week delay to get answers should not overburden the company or delay a full opening of the new terminal in 2023.
This is an important contract for the next 15 years at one of the city’s most crucial places. The City Council needs to get it right, and now’s the time to do it.