A months-long process to study the fate of Kemper Arena took a somewhat clarifying turn on Wednesday, when a developer announced it would withdraw its proposal to renovate and reuse the city facility.
Councilman Ed Ford read a brief statement from Foutch Brothers at the outset of a committee meeting, which also heard reports on projected costs of various plans under his panel’s microscope. Principal Steve Foutch and his attorney John Fairfield, a former city councilman, declined to elaborate on the surprise announcement.
The pullout means the American Royal Association’s proposal to demolish the 40-year-old Kemper and replace it with a smaller mixed-use building returns to a front burner with the gas turned up a few notches. Ford announced his intention, however, to propose caping the city’s initial capital outlay at $20 million, rather than as much as $30 million sought by the American Royal.
“There’s just no more money in the budget than what we’re currently contributing,” Ford said.
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Under the American Royal proposal, the city also would be on the hook for $1 million a year over 30 years to subsidize facility operations, mainly to cover heating and cooling costs.
A spokesman for the American Royal said Ford’s proposal was a welcome starting point for a discussion. Those negotiations came to a halt early this year when the Foutch proposal arose. The developer aimed to save Kemper by turning it into a youth-sports facility.
Similarly, the American Royal engaged Sporting Club, the parent of the Sporting KC soccer team, to partner in a youth-sports program that would enhance the association’s traditional activities in agriculture, livestock shows and its annual barbecue contest. Sporting Club’s CEO, Robb Heineman, spoke Wednesday to Ford’s Plans, Zoning and Economic Development Committee. Without many details — “some of the design is in flux,” he said — Heineman promised the effort would be high-quality and responsive to the needs of young athletes throughout the area.
Royal officials have been adamant about their desire to scrape the architecturally significant Kemper from the city’s landscape. There anthem seems to be “no compromise.”
The city’s options for preserving Kemper Arena are now even slimmer. One solution would involve an investment of at least $60 million to retrofit and update Kemper for the American Royal and other users. The Foutch plan envisioned a retrofit of $22 million, which American Royal chairman Mariner Kemper dismissed as flimsy.
The city’s architectural preservation community has been struggling with the prospect of losing Kemper. But even an all-out campaign to save it as a viable structure requires the will, the vision and the pocketbook — someone’s money — that hasn’t existed up till now.
Nor has the will existed to seriously question the American Royal’s motives, finances and its arrogant approach to solving a civic issue.
Other area non-profits have made significant contributions to the built environment with proportionately far smaller public investments that the American Royal is seeking from the city and eventually the state.
One of those — the Kansas City Ballet — even found a way to set a standard for the adaptive reuse of a long-vacant historic building.
For Kemper Arena, time seems to be running out quickly. When it’s gone, blame it on the American Royal.