Proposal would turn Kemper Arena into youth sports complex

08/07/2014 5:27 PM

08/08/2014 11:10 AM

Imagine Kemper Arena with a new second floor at balcony level. Twelve basketball courts and space for a dozen more sports. Fitness rooms and the area’s largest indoor running track. One thousand kids per night.

That’s the vision developer Steve Foutch outlined Thursday to preserve Kemper by turning it into a local and regional youth sports complex. It would be unique in the country and could become a model for saving mothballed city arenas, he said.

“Old arenas get torn down, and nobody’s been able to do this,” Foutch told The Star after presenting the Foutch Brothers’ detailed plan to a City Council panel. “We’ve figured it out.”

Members of the Council’s Planning, Zoning & Economic Development Committee were enthusiastic about filling Kemper Arena with young athletes and their families, and said tearing down the 40-year-old building in the West Bottoms is the last thing they want to do.

“I am excited about this concept,” Councilman John Sharp said. “I just hate to see it demolished, quite frankly.”

But the Foutch proposal clashes with a competing vision offered by the American Royal, which would replace Kemper with a smaller, custom-designed building for equestrian events. The American Royal also has a new partnership with Sporting Kansas City’s investor group to fill its proposed building with youth soccer and other athletics when it isn’t occupied with agricultural activities.

The council committee is trying to choose between the two options. The American Royal will make its formal presentation next Thursday, but its representatives remain convinced that trying to re-purpose Kemper will be far too expensive and still won’t meet their needs for first-rate equestrian and agricultural space.

Attorney Chase Simmons, representing the American Royal, told The Star that the Royal fully explored ways to save Kemper Arena. But its architects estimated that renovating the building to last another 40 years would cost more than the $50 million cost of the new building.

“To put a Band-Aid on that building will leave it in the same position it’s been in for the last 10 years or so,” Simmons said. “It won’t attract the type of people that it needs to attract, and it’s going to be a cloud over the neighborhood.”

Steve Foutch is just as adamant that Kemper can be rehabilitated for $22 million, which he said he can finance privately if the city will sell him the building for a nominal fee and give him 10 years of property tax abatement. He said JE Dunn has validated his construction plan for the building, and the Konrath Group construction management firm has validated the cost estimate.

As the father of two teenage athletes, Foutch said he travels many weekends to other cities hosting sports clubs, and he’s convinced there’s a huge demand for the type of facility Kemper could provide. He said he has numerous letters of intent and believes the building could attract 1,000 kids per night for practice, plus tournaments, with 500,000 visitors annually.

Council members said if the plan is realized, it could go a long way to revitalizing the West Bottoms. Sharp in particular said it would be great for central city kids to have the kind of sports training center that suburbanites now have, which can lead to lucrative college scholarships and careers.

Among the elements of the Foutch Brothers plan:

The arena would be converted to have a second floor where the balcony is now, which Foutch said the foundation can support and can be accomplished by removing part of the balcony seating. The first floor would have four basketball courts and the second floor eight courts, which could accommodate regional tournaments.

In addition to basketball, the building could house indoor soccer, lacrosse, rugby, volleyball, boxing, martial arts, rowing and bicycling clubs. It would have an indoor track, plus space for concessions, batting cages, a rock climbing wall, strength and fitness training, video replay rooms and a health clinic.

The renovation would be workmanlike, not extravagant. “It’s not going to be gold-plated urinals,” Foutch said, adding that major upgrades will involve heating, cooling, plumbing and insulation. He said aging restrooms and other problems would be addressed but don’t have to be completely redone for this type of reuse.

Foutch has been an architect since the 1980s and Foutch Brothers has been in business for 10 years, specializing in historic renovation. Foutch said his company has done other projects in the $30 million to $40 million range and that Kemper is in much better condition than many of the other projects it has tackled.

“It is not in bad shape at all,” he said.

While supportive of the concept, Sharp warned Foutch that the city can’t just turn the building over to a private company.

“We can’t just cut a deal with you,” he said, adding that any building the city decides it no longer needs must be put out to bid. “You might get it, and you might not.”

John Fairfield, an attorney representing Foutch Brothers, said the company realizes that and is ready to present a bid.

Fairfield also said the project would not conflict with the American Royal’s long-term lease with the city and said the American Royal can still construct its new building on land north of Kemper Arena.

“We are looking for ways to co-exist,” he told the committee. He said the youth sports complex could shut down during the American Royal barbecue so as not to conflict with that event.

Bill Haw, a businessman and former banker who has invested $30 million in the West Bottoms, testified that he’s so excited about the Foutch proposal that he wants to invest in it if the city will let it move forward. “Destroying an iconic building anywhere is something I’m really strongly opposed to,” he said.

The American Royal did not send anyone to testify Thursday. But Simmons said afterward that he believes the Foutch plan does conflict with the city’s long-term lease with the American Royal. He said the plan also raises concerns about parking space shortages and doesn’t leave enough space for the Royal’s new building.

Planning and zoning committee Chairman Ed Ford lamented that the two sides haven’t been able to come to a mutual agreement and said he still hopes that’s possible, even if he has to mediate the discussions.

“We’d love to see a win-win,” he said.

Ford’s committee plans an evening public hearing Aug. 25 at Kemper Arena, with the time to be announced.

The committee hopes to reach a consensus on a preferred option shortly after that, and the City Council hopes to reach a decision by the end of September.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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