Kevin Collison’s Tiny Rolodex

This morning’s paper brings yet another example of how the Kansas City Star’s journalistic lapses have degraded this city’s schools, public safety and tax base. This time, it’s Kevin Collison who fails to ask questions and present facts to help our city assess a humongous investment of borrowed money. By failing to seek input from the people truly concerned with the real cost of development, Collison neglects to present a complete story.

Page 3 of the Business Section features Collison at his worst, complete with sloppy, lazy reporting and misleading graphics. In an advocacy piece masquerading as journalism, Collison presents the bracingly silly argument that because hotel occupancy is suffering in Kansas City, we need to increase our supply of hotel rooms. In the paper, the headline reads “KC Hotels Seek an Awakening”, with the slanted subtitle “Supporters of a proposed downtown convention hotel say it would help increase demand.” Uh-huh.

Collison makes quite clear he is one of the aforementioned supporters. In the paper edition of his story, he provides a graphic employing the age-old trick of “truncated scales”. Collison adapts Darrell Huff’s advice in How to Lie with Statistics (a wonderful book everyone should read): “Chop off the bottom. Of course the eye doesn’t ‘understand’ what isn’t there, and a small rise [can] become, visually, a big one.” In this case, of course it is a big decline that Collison is trying to exaggerate, so his scare graph shows “KC occupancy rates, 1989-2009″ plummeting to near the “rock bottom” of 50% – the drop looks a lot more precipitous when it drops to the bottom instead of hovers above the 50% line.

Collison’s graphical tomfoolery is just the most visible bias, though. He quotes Bill George extensively and unquestioningly, despite Mr. George’s surprising statement that “We don’t believe there will be a problem with the financial success of a new hotel, and we’re also looking at what it would do to boost the occupancy of other hotels.” This financial cockiness contrasts with the one representative of the hotel industry Collison quotes, who tells us that more than a quarter billion dollars worth of Kansas City hotels are already in financial distress, and that banks have run Kansas City hotels for several years. When our City Council is toying with the idea of tossing tax dollars into a failing business model, it would be reassuring to see some follow-up questions from a reporter.

One explanation of the apparent contrast between Mr. George and the person actually in the hotel industry is not found anywhere in Collison’s article. Mr. George made his money in the cab and shuttle business, dropping people off at the doors of the hotels. He also has served multiple times as chair of the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association. That’s not in any way a criticism of Mr. George – he has a legitimate interest in doing whatever it takes to increase the number of conventioneers. He’s doing his job.

Unfortunately, Kevin Collison is not doing his job. Where is a quotation from the manager of the Marriott – does he or she buy into the argument that the correct solution to low demand is to increase supply? What about the Hyatt or Westin?

Most damningly, where is the input from the people whose money they are proposing to spend on this project? The decision on whether to divert city assets to a fat-cat hotel is not merely a squabble between current hotel owners and people who want to drive more taxis.

We’re talking about tax money here. These people want our dollars. They’re not fools – they’re not going to gamble their own fortunes on the claim that you should build more supply when the buyers stop buying.

They want to take more of the money that should have gone to clear streets this winter. They want to take money that might allow a few of the schools to remain open. This is not free money that they want to spend.

Why didn’t Kevin Collison put in a quotation from a student whose school is being closed? Why didn’t he ask a grieving family on the East side about the relative importance of hotels and public safety? Maybe those people aren’t “important” enough to wind up in a business reporter’s call list – okay, then why didn’t he call Crosby Kemper, the head of the Kansas City Library? If we’re only going to hear from people who might be found at the River Club, could we at least get a word in from someone who cares about the impact on the taxpayer, when he’s writing about spending tax dollars??

10 Responses to “Kevin Collison’s Tiny Rolodex”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great critique. I like Collison in general, but I agree, he gets far too close to his subjects and engages in far too much boosterism when he should be critically examining what developers are saying.

    This is just part of the decline in journalism – just running with quotes without holding the quotemakers accountable when they making seemingly ridiculous statements.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I didn't know school funding was in the KCMO city budget? That's news to me. Good overall points though. On Collison's other piece, what's magical about looking at job growth from 2002-2008? Weird selection of years. I'm guessing KCMO's job growth looks a lot worse picking a different period of years.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous 11:26 – TIF money gets diverted from the schools. It's pretty safe to assume that anything that gets done along these lines will take money away from the schools.

  4. Nick says:

    Yet another example of Kansas City's historical waste of taxpayer dollars as well as the largesse the Star traditionally bestows on developers by turning a blind, biased or incompetent eye.

    As for the Star, pffft; whatever Style Guide they’re using it doesn’t seem to include honesty.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Nice post Dan. Would like to know your thoughts on Funkhouser hiring Mark Seittman?

  6. Hyperblogal says:

    Excellent commentary. Something isn't working so we do more of it. Brilliant…

  7. Anonymous says:

    Why doesn't Collison apply this analytical probing to all these other development deals that he otherwise champions? Why does he only pick at the numbers or facts when they're being offered up by someone looking to change the system that benefits Collison's sources, rather than for all the deals that cross his desk?

  8. E. Dawson says:

    Dan, Agrred. I'm not in favor at this point in a public subsidy for a downtown hotel.

    However, when you make the claim that they want to take money that might allow a few of the schools to remain open – I have to ask you – why would we want to support keeping significantly under capacity schools open? The schools were closed based upon the fact there were way to few students in them – we have a building infrastructure built for 75,000 students , and we have 16,000 or thereabouts.

    The KC MO schoold district could get a $100M windfall, and it still wouldn't make sense to support an infrastructure that is way undercapacity. Some of the money could be used to maintain and/or dispose of the buildings, however.

    I think the point that you meant was that, in your opinion, it's inappropriate to divert money from the schools for a downtown hotel, when the school systems need it so badly for important things like higher (merit) pay for teachers, new & improved cirriculum, special ed support, etc. etc. etc.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Much of Collison's work needs to be viewed through the prisim of his attending MANY free lunches and dinners paid for by the same developers that he is supposed to cover with objectivity. As I have been told, "We always see Kevin at these expensive outings, but he has never picked up his tab."

  10. Casey says:

    I'm not a business man. Somebody correct me if I'm wrong. If I'm running a business at 50% of capacity, shouldn't my objective be to move my unused capacity?

    If current hotels are struggling, doesn't flooding the market with more product run the risk of causing the bottom to drop out of the market completely? If that happens, who wins? Probably the owner of the big shiny 1000 room hotel.

    The people who are telling us we need a hotel are supposed to be experts in this stuff. I wish somebody would ask them these questions. I can't escape the impression that somebody is conning the city into creating a monopoly for them.

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