Council committee will examine West Bottoms controversy over the future of Kemper Arena

05/28/2014 5:30 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

A Kansas City Council committee decided to wade into a West Bottoms controversy over the future of Kemper Arena on Wednesday rather than appoint a special committee to tackle the issue.

Saying the council ultimately will have to decide whether the 40-year-old arena should be revamped or demolished, members of the Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee expect to begin hearings in early July and come up with a recommendation by early October.

“A committee review would have the advantage of having core council members familiar with the details as this moves forward in any direction,” Councilman Ed Ford said. “This is an issue that has the potential to be pretty contentious.”

The most pressing issue confronting the city is rival proposals for what to do with Kemper Arena, the city-owned entertainment venue that’s been vastly underused since the opening of the Sprint Center in 2007. Kemper is running a $500,000 annual operating deficit.

The American Royal, which has veto power over the arena until 2045 because of its lease with the city, wants Kemper demolished and replaced with a new agricultural and multipurpose center.

The cost of the American Royal plan is estimated at $60 million. Private donors have pledged $10 million; the rest would come from the city and other public sources.

A rival idea is being pushed by Foutch Bros., a Kansas City development firm that wants to save the arena and convert it to be the anchor of an amateur sports complex. Foutch has estimated the cost of its plan at $21 million and believes it can be funded privately.

Foutch also has applied to have Kemper listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That designation would help the firm apply for federal and state tax credits, but it would not protect the building from being razed.

The dueling plans both have strong backers in the West Bottoms and elsewhere.

Bill Haw, the owner of the Livestock Exchange Building, one of the area’s landmark properties, strongly supports saving Kemper. The American Royal plan is backed by the West Bottoms Business District Association and is being championed by Mariner Kemper, chief executive officer of UMB Financial Corp.

Ford said the council committee plans to hold hearings in the West Bottoms at two locations: Kemper Arena and a place convenient for small businesses. Members also will tour the arena.

The committee intends to review previous planning ideas for the West Bottoms, including recommendations made in 2012 by a panel of national experts sponsored by the Urban Land Institute. The group was brought here at the invitation of Mayor Sly James.

One of the conclusions of the Urban Land Institute panel was that the West Bottoms, a sprawling riverfront area immediately west of downtown Kansas City, be considered three distinct areas: the industrial district to the north, the historic district in the center and the former stockyard district to the south where Kemper is.

To reach Kevin Collison, call 816-234-4289 or send email to Twitter: @kckansascity.

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