Kansas City officials say they still hope for a “win-win” that will keep the American Royal where it is in the West Bottoms while solving the dilemma of Kemper Arena.
But their efforts come as Wyandotte and Clay County officials confirm they have met with Royal representatives about possibly luring the 116-year-old organization to their communities.
And some have even floated the idea that the American Royal’s signature event, its barbecue, could move to another venue such as the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot.
All the talk comes three months after two rival plans for Kemper Arena collided and crashed. Both plans, at least for now, are off the table.
This spring, the city plans to seek new proposals, from local or even national groups, for the underused arena and nearby parking lots.
By going national, the city hopes to entice more ideas and possibilities, said Oscar McGaskey, director of Kansas City Convention and Entertainment Facilities.
“We feel we will get interest,” McGaskey said Thursday.
“I think the city has an obligation to consider alternatives,” said Councilman Ed Ford, who led an unsuccessful effort last year to reconcile two competing visions: the Royal’s desire to replace Kemper Arena with a new $50 million agricultural center, and a rival plan to preserve and repurpose Kemper Arena as a youth sports facility.
Ford, who leaves office in August along with nearly half of the existing council, said he hopes for a clear direction by that time.
“I think that before I leave office, we’ll know if there’s a legitimate reuse for Kemper,” he said.
To that end, the city plans to put out a request for proposals by early May for viable new uses for the Kemper Arena property. The American Royal will be invited to submit, as will Foutch Brothers, which had hoped to renovate Kemper for youth sports but was opposed by the Royal.
American Royal leaders declined to respond to any questions about their future, including whether they will respond to the city’s request, except to issue a statement saying, “Our focus is to make 2015 another successful season.”
A lawyer for Foutch Brothers said the development company remains interested in the arena, but it would depend on the specifics of the city’s request.
“I think there’s interest,” attorney John Fairfield said. “It depends on what the American Royal’s position is.”
Fairfield said Foutch Brothers CEO Steve Foutch has no interest in going to war with the American Royal but still believes in pursuing the youth sports development.
While the American Royal would not comment, economic development officials in both Clay and Wyandotte counties have met with the Royal about the possibility of moving. However, those talks were preliminary and the path forward remains unclear.
“We were contacted by the American Royal,” said Unified Government spokesman Edwin Birch. “It’s no secret the American Royal is looking to go somewhere, but who knows where that is?”
Birch said no specific project, location or financing is on the table. “There’s nothing we are doing to bring the American Royal to the Kansas side,” he said, adding that there’s no timeline for future talks.
“The Unified Government is not in any major discussion with the American Royal,” he said.
Still, others have speculated the Village East or the Woodlands would be good locations if the American Royal decided to move, and said Kansas STAR bonds might be a way to help finance any move. STAR bonds allow Kansas communities to issue bonds for major commercial, entertainment and tourism developments, using the sales taxes generated by the development to pay off the bonds.
Skeptics wonder whether the American Royal sales taxes alone could fund such bonds, but it could be part of a larger economic development district with other sales tax revenues.
After learning of the Wyandotte County discussion, Clay County officials contacted the American Royal and also had a meeting.
“We wanted to see if there was something in Clay County that might work for them,” said Jim Hampton, executive director of the Clay County Economic Development Council.
Hampton said his organization would like to keep the organization on the Missouri side of the state line and had a good conversation with American Royal representatives. But they mostly just got acquainted, and no more meetings are scheduled.
“If they are serious about moving, we at least would like to talk with them and see if there’s something north of the river, in Clay County, that works for them,” Hampton said.
One other intriguing possibility that some have suggested would be for the American Royal to move the barbecue, its most popular event, to a different location with more space, easier parking and highway access, while keeping its other activities in the American Royal Center.
“The barbecue contest has almost outgrown that area, not as much because of the space limitations but because of the traffic gridlock,” said Councilman John Sharp, who used to participate in the contest. “So it might well be that another location with better access and more parking would allow it to continue to flourish and grow.”
Sharp suggested Arrowhead and the Truman Sports Complex might be a workable venue. Then, he said, the city could help the American Royal renovate the existing Hale Arena and other American Royal Center facilities for less money than a new building would cost, while preserving Kemper Arena for youth sports.
Jim Rowland, executive director of the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority, declined to comment on any speculation about using the stadiums as an alternate venue for the barbecue.
Ford was skeptical about moving the barbecue from its traditional West Bottoms location.
“It’s very successful down there,” he said.
Mayor Sly James acknowledged that so far, the city has been “stuck in neutral” on finding a solution for Kemper Arena and the American Royal.
He said that however the city decides to proceed this year, it must do what’s best for the entire West Bottoms neighborhood.
“I’d like to see a comprehensive solution to the issue, something that encourages, stimulates and fits in with the organic growth that’s there,” he said.
Ford and other council members said last year’s fierce debate over the arena did clarify some things for the city. It revealed that few taxpayers supported the Royal’s request for $30 million in city money to help pay for a new $50 million agri-entertainment center.
“What they were asking for was too much from the taxpayers,” said finance committee Chairwoman Jan Marcason, whose 4th District includes the West Bottoms. “We have to really watch the cost/benefit analysis.”
Mayor Pro Tem Cindy Circo agreed the city simply can’t provide that level of taxpayer support when this year’s budget doesn’t include any raises for city employees.
But Marcason, Ford and others said that if the American Royal could kick in more private dollars, the idea of a new agricultural center to replace Kemper might still work.
Council members who have been actively involved in the debate said they would be loath to lose the American Royal from the West Bottoms.
“This is its home. This is where it was born and raised,” Circo said. “I would love to see the American Royal where they belong, at home, in Kansas City.”
City Manager Troy Schulte said a nationwide request for proposals will give interested parties about three or four months to respond and should clarify the city’s options. Either creative solutions will emerge, or if no viable solution presents itself, he said, that probably means Kemper Arena will need to be demolished.
“It will force that decision-making along,” Schulte said.
To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.