December 31, 1840

City needs unbiased look at Kemper Arena and West Bottoms

A Kansas City Council committee looking at the future of Kemper Arena and West Bottoms shouldn’t be rushed, and would benefit from an independent look at the economic value of the American Royal.

It has been almost three years since the American Royal asked the city to build a $60 million equestrian center to replace Kemper Arena and four months since a developer pitched an alternative idea to adapt the facility for amateur sports.

Neither of those mutually exclusive ideas has gone away, and last week a Kansas City Council committee decided to roll up its sleeves and resolve the impasse — and engage in an “appropriate planning process” for the entire West Bottoms for good measure.

Good luck on what Councilman Ed Ford astutely described as an “issue that has the potential to be pretty contentious.”

This actually could get ugly, because it pits some influential people with a vested interest in the American Royal, a 115-year-old Kansas City tradition most would agree has seen better days, against those who like the 40-year-old Kemper Arena and want it preserved.

Throw in the fact the American Royal’s proposed 5,000-seat multipurpose and agricultural center would require $50 million in public funds and is low on the city’s priorities, and it makes it a tough sell.

On the other hand, Foutch Brothers, the Kansas City developers that want Kemper to be the centerpiece of an amateur sports complex, also are making a leap. They say its deal can be done privately for $21 million and the city essentially handing it the keys to Kemper.

But the firm doesn’t control the arena — the American Royal does because of a 45-year lease deal — and Foutch has never done anything like this. Foutch has done admirable historic renovation work, mostly residential, but nothing like rehabbing Kemper and managing an amateur sports complex.

The council committee wants to begin holding hearings on Kemper and the West Bottoms in early July and have its recommendations by early October. It wants to look at previous plans for Kemper and the Bottoms as part of the process.

The city also should do some new research, too, particularly when it comes to the economic impact of the American Royal.

The organization released a study of its own two years ago prepared by Convention Sports & Leisure. It doesn’t appear to offer a strong case that building a new event center for the American Royal would have a significant payoff.

The report found the current complex, which includes Kemper, hosted 54 events that drew 266,900 people in 2011. However, only 21 of those events and 68,900 of those people were related to livestock and horse shows, less than half the total activity.

Even under the most ambitious scenario with Kemper replaced by a new equestrian center, the study projected total events would rise to 79 and draw 398,300 people. Of those events, only 26 would be related to livestock and horses, attracting 85,300 people.

So for $50 million in taxpayer money, the American Royal’s plan would bump up the number of livestock/horse events and attendance by 24 percent. Isn’t making the place more attractive for those kinds of events the major rationale for this?

The report also mentioned many attendees for those kind of equestrian events likely spend their money outside the city because of parking and amenity problems.

If the council committee wants a sober look at whether the American Royal plan is worth it, it should do its own independent economic impact study.

It also would be wise for the committee to revisit previous recommendations made about retrofitting Kemper to suit the American Royal’s needs. They were prepared in 2001 when planning for the Sprint Center began in earnest.

Ron Labinski, a respected sports architect, suggested Kemper could be renovated and its capacity reduced to 8,000 seats by lowering the ceiling and cutting the top half of the seating bowl. It also could be revamped as a 10,000-seat facility by raising the floor and eliminating the lower-seat bowl.

At the time, the estimated cost for either option was $10 million.

Foutch also needs to be pressed to prove the viability of its plan, but right now it’s on the outside looking in on the future of Kemper.

As for the West Bottoms in general, the council committee should examine another longstanding problem, the Kansas City Community Release Center at 651 Mulberry St. The 450-bed facility operated by the state houses prisoners preparing to re-enter the community.

It’s been a subject of concern in the West Bottoms and downtown Kansas City for years.

“We feel it’s a failed concept that needs to be changed,” said Sean O’Byrne of the Downtown Council. “The goal is to reintegrate people into the community, but it does create a lot of loitering, which isn’t helpful to any area.”

The good news is, the council committee shouldn’t worry much about the historic buildings of the West Bottoms. The area is organically becoming home to the next generation of artists and urban pioneers without much help from the city.

The best thing the council committee could do would be to make sure those massive old brick buildings are getting adequate fire protection. Someday they’ll be a great asset as urban Kansas City continues to come back.

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

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