Accusations of Unethical Backroom Deals have Marred the KC Airport Concessions Bidding Process

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Kansas City Aviation Department’s recommendation to award Vantage Airport Group the bid to run concessions at KCI’s new terminal has raised several questions about the deal’s legitimacy.

Vantage Airport Group was one of five bidders vying for the lucrative 15-year contract of running the new terminal’s concessions and retail operations. 

A city selection committee unanimously recommended Vantage Airport Group for the contract Thursday afternoon. However, as the details of the selection process are being concealed from the public, many are wondering what the committee’s rationale was for their recommendation.

Notably, there seems to be an alarming connection between one of the council members who previously served on the city’s Transportation Committee and Vantage Airport Group: political consulting firm Parson & Associates

City Councilman Dan Fowler, District 2, served on City Council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2015 to 2019 and has paid Parson & Associates a total of $37,000 over the last six years for campaign services. Fowler is also widely known to be close friends with Jason Parson, President and CEO of Parson & Associates.

Vantage Airport Group also has a working relationship with Parson & Associates as the group mentioned the consulting firm in a tweet expressing appreciation for the committee’s recommendation.

The new revelation has some wondering if there were any backdoor, and potentially unethical, deals made between Fowler, Vantage Airport Group and Parson & Associates due to the recommendation’s details being withheld from the public.

Councilwoman Teresa Loar has worked in the aviation industry for years and has strong connections with the bidders who were involved in the negotiations. Because of this, Loar actually asked the Mayor not to appoint her to the Transportation Committee because she wanted to preserve the integrity of the negotiations.

Many are wondering why Fowler didn’t recuse himself from discussions about the concessions contract, being that he has a connection with Vantage Airport Group through Parson and appears to have played a hand in recommending them for the contract.

When asked about his and Parson’s professional relationship, Fowler maintained that their business dealings ended in 2019 and their personal relationship was “not at all” involved in the recommendation of Vantage. 

However, Fowler acknowledged “one or two” meetings between himself, Parson and Vantage Airport Group to discuss the concessions contract once discussions of the new terminal began. 

After reaching out to Parson & Associates for comment, Jason Parson returned a call to The Heartlander, but hung up immediately and did not offer any comment. 

Vantage’s proposal includes a plan to showcase local restaurants, shops and eateries to display a representation of the city to airport visitors. But it seems only select areas of Kansas City will be showcased.

Northland KC Council members have expressed concerns that the Airport Group’s proposed local vendors do not include any from Northland Kansas City, which is actually where the airport is located. 

“I was pretty appalled to see that,” Loar told The Heartlander. “There are so many great restaurants and entertainment venues up North and I was so surprised that we were completely shut out of the proposal.”

Another major concern about Vantage’s proposal is the business model they are offering the city. Although Aviation Director Pat Klein referred to it as a “tremendous proposal”, Loar believes the model will be detrimental to the small businesses operating in the new terminal.

Loar expressed frustration with recommending Vantage because they proposed a “developer model” as opposed to the other bidders who are “master concessionaires.” 

The 2nd District Councilwoman explained that the developer model may be most lucrative for the city, but it places heavy financial burdens, much heavier than the concessionaires’ model, on the small businesses that will occupy the terminal. 

The increased upfront costs forced upon the small businesses will likely lead to some businesses going bankrupt in the first 6 months of operating, according to Loar.

“My biggest concern is those small businesses they’re sucking in there are destined for failure because of this model,” she said.

Additionally, representatives of various Kansas City businesses, including flagship KC restaurant Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, told The Kansas City Star they were not selected and were also curious about how the winning proposal was chosen. 

Revenue from the businesses inside the terminal is estimated at $1.5 billion over the 15-year lifespan of the contract, so it’s no surprise that council members and Kansas Citians are demanding details of the selection be released.

Vantage Airport Group’s proposal includes paying the city $1.75 for every passenger that boards a flight and an additional $65 million in private investment into the terminal. The new terminal, scheduled to open in early 2023, will have 39 gates and includes room for an additional 11 gates to be opened in the future. It is noted to be the largest single infrastructure project in Kansas City, Missouri’s history.

Fowler can expect to be pressured on his and Vantage’s coinciding relationships with Parson & Associates as the Transportation committee will debate the recommendation at 9 a.m. on Wednesday. If approved by the committee, the proposal will then be voted on for full approval by the entire City Council on either this Thursday or next Thursday. 

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