Kansas City considers changing bid process amid controversial KCI concession project

·6 min read

The contract to run Kansas City International Airport’s new concession program is being held for a week as city leaders contemplate opening up their procurement process.

A committee made up of city staffers, one council member and an airline representative has recommended the council sign a 15-year contract with Canada’s Vantage Airport Group to build out and manage food, beverage and retail operations at the city’s new $1.5 billion airport terminal.

But on Wednesday, as the proposed contract was discussed in a council committee meeting, more questions arose about the city’s bidding practices. City officials have so far only released an executive summary of their preferred vendor’s bid, but haven’t made public any of the five bids they received.

Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, District 4 at-large, said that puts the council in a disadvantage when weighing the contract.

Shields pointed to a recent Star story that examined the secrecy surrounding the bidding process. She said the city previously made bids available so the public and council members could compare proposals. But in recent years, she said, city staffers have changed their procurement process to allow city staff to control what information gets to the council.

“We don’t actually have any information on the other bidders that we can actually make a comparison,” she said. “All we can say is in light of what staff brought forward, does this sound like a good deal? But we don’t have really any information at all with how this offer compares to the other four offers.”

Several people in the packed council chambers applauded her comments.

Shields said she was impressed by Vantage’s proposal. But she called for a fundamental shift in the city’s bidding process for all projects, not just the high-profile airport contract.

“I think we ought to revamp how all bids and requests for proposals are brought forward to us so that we actually have fuller information,” she said.

City staffers have defended the secrecy of the bidding process by saying it maintains integrity and can help limit political influence. They also note that the city uses the same selection committee process for all requisitions.

But on Wednesday, Aviation Director Pat Klein said he agreed with Shields’ assessment.

“The city probably should look at their procurement practices,” he said.

Klein said the city may have evolved its bidding process because of litigation concerns.

“Sometimes the process gets very messy,” he said. “It’s competitive.”

Councilman Kevin O’Neill, District 1 at-large, pushed back on Shields’ comments, saying — also to applause — that he was concerned that they were challenging policy while voting on an individual project. He was ready to vote on the contract Wednesday.

“We’re elected to make decisions,” O’Neill said, adding that he struggles with making the bids public now but would support making them public after a decision is made. “It might not be the right decision, but we’re elected to make that decision.”

Though it’s unclear when all five bids may be released publicly, officials said the council and the public would receive a scoring matrix that shows how each bidder was evaluated by the selection committee before next week’s meeting. That rubric will not have the names of individual bidders included.

“I think it’s actually fairly interesting to be able to talk about how we could see more process improvements,” Mayor Quinton Lucas said after the meeting.

He said he looks forward to receiving the matrix as he was also — like Shields — not able to review all of the bids.

“I think it would be helpful for me, for everyone in the public to see what those eight criteria are and how do they compare with all of the other groups that were bidding,” Lucas said.

He added: “I do think it’s fair for us to say how do you get adequate information, not necessarily just about the successful bidder, but all of the other bidders? … I think it’s fair for the public to know that. I think elected officials, including myself, should know that.”

He said there’s no reason for the matrix to not be available to the public.

Dan Fowler, District 2 and the only council member on the selection committee, described the selection of Vantage as a “very rigorous and staff-driven process.”

“This was not really a subjective deal at least from my standpoint. It was pretty objective,” he said. “We gave it our best shot. We acted upon the information we had present at the time and this is what we came up with. I think we can criticize our processes but on this deal that was the deck we were dealt.”

At Wednesday’s committee meeting, Vantage officials gave a short presentation, similar to the one they made last week to the full council. But the company said it had already made changes in response to local feedback.

For instance, the company said it would drop Chick-fil-A from its proposal after opposition from Kansas City’s LGBTQ Commission. The group also mentioned how it was working to include more Northland representation in the project after two council members objected that no restaurants from the parts of Kansas City that are north of the Missouri River were included. (Tay’s Burger Shack is part of Vantage’s proposal, but it actually sits within the city limits of North Kansas City.)

At the meeting, restaurants and brands that would benefit from their inclusion in Vantage’s proposal lobbied the council to ink the deal. And some of those that were included in other bids not recommended by the selection committee asked the council to consider the other options.

Anita Moore, chef and owner of Soirée Steak & Oyster House in the 18th & Vine district, asked the council to approve the proposal, which includes an airport outpost of her restaurant. She said Vantage had already provided valuable mentoring and support to her restaurant, which has struggled through the pandemic.

“We’re not even into the airport yet and they’ve helped me in so many ways,” she said. “They threw me a lifeline and a partnership that I could not refuse.”

Andy Rieger, owner of J. Rieger & Co. distillery, laid out the various companies and organizations included in a competing bid for the airport concession program. In addition to his company, he mentioned Ruby Jeans Juicery, the Kansas City Chiefs and Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que.

While he said those brands would respect the council’s ultimate decision, he urged them to weigh it carefully.

“We’ve got one chance to get this right,” he said. “The airport is our city’s moment to shine.”

Courtney Thornton, executive vice president of corporate strategy and business development for Hudson Group, part of another bid, said council members may not have a full picture of what other vendors could bring to the airport.

“You may not be privy to the members of our team or our experience or more importantly the model where we can integrate support for women and minority owned businesses,” she said.

When it first became clear that Vantage was the committee’s preferred vendor, the union representing current airport employees objected. Other vendors have signed agreements with the union committing to maintaining the workforce and current benefits, but Vantage has not.

Vantage officials said they were committed to labor harmony and said they were in discussions with the union.

Kim Bartholomew, president of Unite Here Local 74, said she appreciated Vantage including the union in its presentation.

However, she said, “a slideshow does not mean a legally binding contract.”

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