For months, Kansas City tried to choose between two rival plans for the future of Kemper Arena.
Now both plans have been withdrawn and the city is left trying to figure out how to proceed.
The American Royal this week sent a letter to Councilman Ed Ford, chairman of the council’s planning and zoning committee, saying it was halting its proposal to raze Kemper Arena and replace it with a new $50 million events center in the West Bottoms. The letter made clear that the American Royal has been stung by negative public and media reaction to its proposal.
That follows the Foutch Brothers decision last month to withdraw its alternate plan to repurpose Kemper as a youth sports facility — after the American Royal objected and threatened a lawsuit over Foutch’s involvement.
All this leaves Kemper as a woefully underused facility without a clear path forward.
It’s a big disappointment to Ford, who back in June had hoped to find a way that the American Royal and Foutch could coexist in the West Bottoms.
“What I said at the start of the process was that the status quo doesn’t work for anyone,” Ford said Tuesday. “It looks like what we’re left with now is the status quo.”
In a letter sent late Monday to Ford, an attorney for the American Royal said the current debate has turned so hostile that it’s not productive for the organization to continue its involvement at this time.
Earlier this month, Ford and other council members asked city staff to prepare a “request for proposals” (RFP) for good future uses of the property that contains Kemper Arena. Council members were already considering the American Royal’s request for taxpayer assistance for a multipurpose center to replace the aging arena but said legally they needed to explore what other options might present themselves.
Attorney Korb Maxwell wrote Monday that the American Royal does not believe the city has to consider other options and will not respond to the proposals request.
“We don’t think our further participation in a public debate regarding these facilities is healthy for our organization, our donors or our youth sports partner,” Maxwell wrote. “Thus, we will not be submitting a response to the RFP and will suspend all planning, participation in hearings and fundraising for the new Events Center.”
The letter did not say anything about the American Royal considering leaving the West Bottoms or Kansas City, as some have feared. Instead, it said the organization “will refocus our efforts on staging a successful 2015 season and ensuring our lease requirements have been met.”
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Mariner Kemper, chairman and CEO of UMB Financial Corp. and chairman of the American Royal Association, said the Royal has tried for three years to provide a solution to Kemper Arena’s decline that resulted after the downtown Sprint Center was built.
Kemper said the association has attended countless meetings and repeatedly tweaked its plan in response to city and community requests. But the public hearings have turned into “Royal-bashing sessions,” he said, and the association decided to stop its work on the plan “for now.”
If the city once again concludes that the Royal’s plan is the best, Kemper said, the organization stands ready to resume negotiations on how to make it a reality.
Or else, Kemper said, the city must start meeting its lease obligations to provide sufficient funds to address the serious deferred maintenance shortcomings of the existing complex.
The Royal’s letter marks quite a turnaround from just six weeks ago, when the City Council was trying to figure out how to accommodate both the Royal and Foutch plans.
The American Royal has raised about $15 million privately for its plan to demolish and replace Kemper, but it was also asking the city to put up $30 million for the new building, along with a $1 million per year operating subsidy for 30 years. It also said it would seek $20 million in state tax credits for the project.
The association continues to believe that a new building is the best way to revitalize the West Bottoms with both American Royal and youth sporting events, which would save as much as $100 million in long-term costs on the entire American Royal complex.
Meanwhile, Foutch Brothers had proposed to save Kemper Arena and convert it to a regional youth sports facility. Foutch had argued there was sufficient land for both Kemper Arena and the new American Royal building — an assertion that the American Royal disputed.
Ford’s committee has held numerous meetings since July to examine both options.
But before that process was concluded, the American Royal sent Foutch a “cease and desist” letter in mid-October, arguing that the Foutch plan interfered with the Royal’s long-term lease with the city for the American Royal complex, which extends through 2045.
That threat prompted Foutch to withdraw its plan from consideration and appeared to clear the way for the American Royal’s plan to gain the upper hand.
But the request for tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, plus the requirement to demolish Kemper Arena, prompted a vocal backlash from the historic preservation community and others against the Royal’s plan.
The letter made it clear that the American Royal — as one of Kansas City’s oldest and most beloved organizations — was stung by that criticism.
“It is unfortunate that a conversation about what to do with Kemper Arena has morphed into a hostile debate on whether or not Kansas City supports the American Royal,” Maxwell wrote. “The City has made it clear that investing in the American Royal is not a priority.”
On Tuesday, Christy Chester, a longtime American Royal supporter, said she hopes the letter marks a pause in the acrimony and provides another chance for the public to give fair consideration to the events center plan.
“If we don’t get on this and get it resolved and taken care of, it’s just slitting the throat of the West Bottoms,” she said.
She argued the American Royal and its plan have been misconstrued.
“The American Royal is not just a bunch of rich people with horses,” she said, adding that it provides major scholarships and agricultural education opportunities for children.
Dan Cofran, a former city councilman and a member of the Historic Kansas City board, said Tuesday he thinks the American Royal’s withdrawal is a positive thing.
“Everyone, I think it’s fair to say, has a soft spot for the American Royal in Kansas City,” Cofran said. “But their request was far beyond the financial capabilities of the city.”
Ford said he will recommend a “cooling off period” until after the first of the year and then will discuss with his colleagues how to proceed, including whether to continue seeking proposals for Kemper’s reuse.