Members of a Kansas City Council committee studying the fate of Kemper Arena on Thursday expressed hope that two proposals for the property could coexist. That should be encouraging to those who want to save the 40-year-old structure from demolition, though it’s far from being a slam dunk.
In its second meeting on the matter this summer, the Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee heard a presentation from Steve Foutch, a developer who envisions renovating Kemper and turning it into a center for youth sports.
On Aug. 14, the committee will hear from Kemper’s current tenant, the American Royal Association, which wants to demolish the arena and replace it with a smaller multi-purpose facility.
Foutch and his attorney, John Fairfield, a former city councilman, described how a new Royal building could physically coexist with Kemper. They also noted that Foutch would do whatever was possible to address the Royal’s needs before its new building was erected and in the future. They suggested, for example, that the sports facility would close during the Royal’s biggest event, the October barbecue contest, or provide access to a planned medical clinic or other new assets in their Kemper plan.
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Councilman Ed Ford, the committee chair, offered to arrange a meeting between Foutch and the American Royal. Fairfield had told the committee that Royal officials had declined to talk with Foutch. Ford’s mediation may well be necessary.
The Royal’s chairman, Mariner Kemper, whose family name is on the arena, has repeatedly stated that the Royal has no interest in saving Kemper and stands by its plan for a new building. The association has announced that it has lined up commitments of $10 million in private funds. It also is seeking $30 million from the city and hopes to land $20 million in state tax credits.
For his part, Foutch told the committee he had investors lined up and ready to commit to his $22 million project. He envisions installing a second floor halfway up the existing arena bowl and creating a flexible complex to accommodate basketball, volleyball, boxing, indoor soccer and other sports.
Foutch is asking to buy Kemper from the city for a nominal amount, though one council member suggested it’s possible that if the arena were designated as surplus property it probably would have to go out for bid. “You might get it and you might not,” said Councilman John Sharp.
Yet, Sharp was one of those who expressed enthusiasm for the Foutch project on several levels — as a boost to young people in the central city who need better facilities to train and to compete for college scholarships and to avoid the wasteful demolition of an iconic Kansas City building.
Bill Haw Sr., a major property owner and developer in the West Bottoms, testified in favor of the Foutch project and revealed that he was prepared to invest in it. As someone who has personally invested or backed more than $30 million of properties in the old stockyards district, Haw said, “I can’t imagine why a new arena would require tearing down Kemper.”
Foutch and Fairfield made a compelling case for the city taking a risk on a new idea. The Foutch project would save the city $6 million in demolition plus the hundreds of thousands of dollars in maintenance and operation red ink that the city carries each year on Kemper. If the Foutch plan were to fail down the road, a clawback in the contract could allow the city to do something else with Kemper in the future or send it off to its ultimate demise.
Good luck to Ford if he can bring the Foutch and Royal interests together and find not only common ground but a real compromise that could make both projects happen. A compromise and collaboration that preserves and reuses Kemper Arena in an intriguing new way and enhances the American Royal at the same time is the right thing to do.