The long-simmering discussions between Kansas City and the American Royal about what to do with Kemper Arena got a surprising jolt Wednesday.
Neal Patterson, co-founder and CEO of Cerner Corp., said he and Mariner Kemper, CEO of UMB Financial Corp., will pay for the demolition of the arena, a cost he estimated at $5 million.
We “will tear this down on our nickel,” Patterson said in a speech at the American Royal’s annual Business & Scholarship Luncheon, held on the arena’s floor.
Patterson, a lifetime governor of the American Royal, was the keynote speaker at the luncheon and about 700 guests heard him offer to pay for demolition costs. Although he said it would cost $5 million to demolish the arena, the city has estimated a higher price, closer to $6 million or $6.5 million.
The offer to pay for tearing down Kemper Arena is the latest twist in a debate about whether to replace entirely the 18,000-seat, architecturally notable arena with a smaller building. The other main option would be to remodel the arena and build a smaller arena adjacent to it.
The American Royal has proposed demolishing Kemper and replacing it with a custom-designed, $50 million arena that would seat 5,000. Under a competing plan, the Foutch Brothers development company would buy Kemper for a nominal cost and spend $22 million to retrofit it as a regional youth athletics facility. The Royal could then build its arena adjacent to the remodeled Kemper.
City Manager Troy Schulte was not at the luncheon and said later Wednesday that the offer to pay for the demolition of Kemper was news to him. But Schulte said it would make the American Royal’s proposal more financially feasible.
Mariner Kemper, this year’s chairman of the American Royal board of governors, said after the event that he and Patterson had agreed to make the demolition offer as a surprise at the luncheon.
“What we’re attempting to do is to remove whatever obstacles are required to get this thing off center,” Kemper said. “We keep hearing that everyone’s choking on spending $5 million to tear down the building, so this is our last offer to get the positive results for the city.”
The American Royal board believes that simply renovating Kemper Arena to meet its expansion plans would be too expensive. The organization has a lease with the city to use Kemper and the American Royal complex in the West Bottoms through 2045.
Kemper said the demolition proposal issued by Patterson “would never have existed if the city had lived up to its obligations as per our lease. If they’d maintained the building per the lease, we’d never have proposed tearing down Kemper.”
Mariner Kemper and his late father, R. Crosby Kemper Jr., first unveiled plans in October 2011 for a $50 million agricultural and multipurpose events center to replace Kemper Arena. The Kempers pledged to raise $10 million privately for the project, and Mariner Kemper said Wednesday that the American Royal now has $20 million donated for possible use, although part of that is for an endowment.
The proposal also involved about $20 million in state tax credits and called for the city to provide $30 million for upgrades to the American Royal complex, the new building and the Kemper Arena demolition.
Schulte said Wednesday that if the demolition cost is privately covered, that makes it somewhat easier for the city to finance the rest.
The City Council’s Planning, Zoning & Economic Development Committee is weighing the American Royal’s proposal against the Foutch Brothers’ plan.
Committee chairman Ed Ford was at Wednesday’s lunch and heard Patterson’s announcement.
“It certainly makes it more attractive, but there’s still a long ways to go,” Ford said, adding that his committee hopes to make a recommendation to the full council by early October.
John Fairfield, an attorney for Foutch, said Wednesday that his clients believe they have a viable plan for Kemper Arena that doesn’t undermine the American Royal’s lease or its plan for a new, custom-designed building.
“Obviously, we think it’s a historic building that can be renovated and redeveloped in a positive way,” Fairfield said. “Which doesn’t necessarily eliminate what the American Royal wants to do. It just changes the location of their building.”
Patterson and Kemper both say that the American Royal needs more space to expand the annual barbecue contest and that parking would be severely impeded if Kemper Arena remained as it is and another arena was placed next to it.
Kansas City historic preservation advocates have lamented the idea of tearing down Kemper Arena, which was built in the mid-1970s.
Foutch has pushed to have the arena placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which would make it eligible for state and federal historic tax credits.
The National Park Service kicked back a historic designation application earlier this year, saying that Helmut Jahn’s original design was compromised by a 1997 expansion.
Historic preservation consultant Elizabeth Rosin said Wednesday that she plans to submit a new application by next week. The new argument for preservation is based on the claim that Kemper is a prime example of multipurpose arenas that cities built in the 1970s. Getting on the register doesn’t prohibit demolition, but if federal funds are used, then those plans have to be reviewed by the state historic preservation office.
Wednesday’s luncheon featured the granting of agribusiness scholarships to six college students: Alyssa Clements, University of Illinois; Morgan Weinrich, Colorado State University; Emma Likens, University of Nebraska; Sadie Kinne, University of Missouri; Garrett Kays, Kansas State University; and Jade Kampsen, South Dakota State University.
Officials noted that the American Royal, which will celebrate its 115th year in Kansas City this fall, has expanded its roster of governors — ambassadors for the organization — from 600 last year to 1,000 this year and that it expects a sold-out rodeo Sept. 26 and 27.
The annual barbecue contest is set for Oct. 2-5. The livestock show will run Oct. 22-Nov. 2. The annual parade will be Sept. 27.