Call it a white elephant or call it one of the city’s great architectural landmarks. Either way, Kemper Arena is still ticking. And that’s a good outcome, for now.
Three years after the American Royal Association proposed razing the underused, city-owned facility, its officials backed off last week. After a series of public relations blunders and a persistent “no compromise” attitude, attorneys for the American Royal said it would withdraw its plan for a new building and await the results of a city effort to seek proposals for reusing Kemper.
The arena has been at the heart of a civic tug of war, which accelerated this year and opened some unexpected wounds. A break in the action was certainly needed.
“I think a timeout’s good for everybody,” City Council member Ed Ford told The Star last week. “It’s good for the Royal. It’s good for the city. The delay works for those trying to restart the historic register process.”
Ford and his council colleagues have spent more than four months studying the issues. They were taken aback when developer Steve Foutch, under pressure from the American Royal’s lawyers, in October withdrew his proposal to retrofit Kemper Arena as a center for recreation and youth sports.
And they were somewhat surprised, Ford said, when the Royal changed course. In issuing a request for proposals, it’s so far unclear whether the city would ask developers only to envision a reuse of Kemper or whether broader proposals, involving other pieces of the West Bottoms, would be appropriate without violating terms of the American Royal’s longterm lease with the city. Proposals that better connect the arena with blocks to the north would make sense.
Ford said he is also trying to determine whether Kemper could be mothballed until its future were more certain. That could help corral current city losses on the arena. If so, Ford said, some savings could be directed toward sorely needed deferred maintenance on the adjacent, weary buildings that make up the American Royal Complex.
The American Royal sought $60 million from the city to help build and maintain a new multipurpose facility. Its spokesmen said the plan would save the city $100 million, though that number and other aspects of the Royal’s and the city’s mutual obligations were roundly questioned in a recent hearing.
In their letter withdrawing the plan, the Royal’s attorneys lamented that “a conversation about what to do with Kemper Arena morphed into a hostile debate on whether or not Kansas City supports the American Royal.”
Yet, the Royal made it clear during this debate that its traditional activities have dwindled and if it weren’t for the annual weekend barbecue contest the organization would be up the proverbial creek without a saddle, let alone a paddle. It also made clear that “what to do with Kemper Arena” meant only one thing — demolition. To many people that would be a wasteful erasure of a city asset, albeit one without a clear current mission.
Of course, the letter could well be a prelude to a lawsuit by the Royal or a move to another location — the West Bottoms facilities remain important, the letter stated, “unless or until we find an alternative.”
Regardless, the city now has more time to work on what’s right for taxpayers and the West Bottoms.
Historic preservationists have recently succeeded in a crowdfunding effort to resume an application for the National Historic Register, a process derailed when the Foutch plan fell by the wayside.
That won’t necessarily mean Kemper will be saved. But it’s an important piece of the civic conversation and of the vexing, three-dimensional puzzle with many moving parts.