American Royal officials remain convinced that Kemper Arena should be torn down, even if the city would help build them the new 5,000-seat facility they want right next door to a repurposed Kemper.
Although that competing proposal would preserve Kemper as a youth sports complex, Royal officials told a City Council committee on Thursday, it would ruin their plans.
Turns out Royal officials also plan to host youth sporting events in the new arena they’d like. What’s more, squeezing another building onto the site, they said, would take away parking space and crowd out the annual American Royal Barbecue and other outdoor events they hope to stage.
“We’re trying to take the American Royal to the next level, and we need new facilities to do that,” said Mariner Kemper, American Royal chairman and grandson of the arena’s namesake.
City officials have been fretting over what to do with Kemper Arena since the Sprint Center opened downtown in 2007.
Kemper used to hold 100-plus events a year. Now it’s down to a couple dozen. The rest of the year, the West Bottoms landmark is mothballed at a cost to taxpayers of some $2 million a year.
For several years, the American Royal has been pushing to have the 18,000-seat arena razed to make room for a much smaller facility to stage its horse shows and other events.
One key bargaining chip: The Royal has a long-term lease that requires the city to provide space for those events through 2045 — meaning the city can’t just shut down Kemper and walk away.
During a nearly three-hour meeting, Mariner Kemper and legal counsel Chase Simmons detailed the latest iteration of the Royal’s $60 million plan.
Some $5 million of the total would go toward demolishing the old building, $50 million would cover the cost of building a new one and $5 million would be set aside to make fixes on the rest of the American Royal complex.
How to pay for it? The American Royal has raised $10 million from donors and suggests that local, state and federal taxpayers cover the rest of the cost.
The state and federal share, estimated at $20 million, would come in the form of tax credits and other funds, while city taxpayers would borrow the remaining $30 million and pay that off over 20 to 25 years.
City officials have been reluctant to spend tens of millions of dollars on a new facility devoted to an organization that holds the bulk of its events during a three-month season.
Find other uses for a new building, city staffers told Royal officials some time ago. The American Royal responded Thursday with a proposal that would have the new facility in nearly constant use during the year. In addition to holding the Royal’s events, it would become a center for indoor youth sports. There’d be basketball, soccer and volleyball courts, as well as facilities for hockey, cheerleading and other activities.
For that part of it, Simmons said, the Royal hopes to partner with the ownership group behind the Sporting Kansas City soccer club.
Therein lies a complicating factor for city officials who would like to give the American Royal what it wants while somehow sparing Kemper from demolition.
Last week, developer Steve Foutch outlined a $22 million plan to turn Kemper itself into a youth sports complex. Foutch said that price tag assumed his firm could buy the building for a nominal fee and be granted 10 years of property tax breaks.
Foutch said it would become a local and regional attraction, attracting 1,000 kids per night for team sports practices, along with tournaments that might attract a half-million visitors every year.
Under the plan, the arena would have 12 basketball courts — four on the main floor and eight on a second floor to be added at what now is the balcony level.
The courts and other parts of the building could also be used for soccer, lacrosse, rugby, volleyball, boxing, martial arts, rowing and bicycling clubs. The building also would feature an indoor track, batting cages and a rock climbing wall.
Committee member John Sharp and others liked the idea at the time, saying they hated to see the 40-year-old arena torn down.
Committee Chairman Ed Ford reiterated that sentiment at this week’s meeting, saying he’d hoped that there might be a compromise between the two proposals.
“Outside of the American Royal, I’ve yet to have anybody tell me we ought to tear it down,” he said. “The enthusiasm the American Royal has to tear down Kemper escapes me.”
Mariner Kemper bristled at that, saying he is not enthusiastic about tearing down a building that bears his family’s name. But unless the city is committed to spending $50 million on an upgrade, he said, the old arena eventually will crumble.
“We don’t want to tear down Kemper Arena if we don’t have to,” he said, but Royal officials and their consultant have come to that “unfortunate” conclusion.
Another conclusion they’ve come to is that two youth sporting facilities side by side would not work.
Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman was not at the meeting, but he said in video testimony that a new building was preferable to “a bandaged approach” at Kemper.
Under the Royal’s proposal, the city would pay $1 million a year to maintain the new building, with the Royal picking up any additional costs.
Even at that, Simmons said, taxpayers would pay 15 to 20 percent less to build and maintain the new arena during the remaining 30 years on the Royal’s 50-year lease than it would just to maintain Kemper.
Ford’s committee hopes to make its recommendation to the full City Council next month. But before that there’s a public hearing set for 6 p.m. Aug. 25.
The place: Kemper Arena.