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Big-time racing, big-time crowd

DATE OF EVENT: Wednesday, May 12, 2004

DATE PUBLISHED: Thursday, May 13, 2004, in The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: Mayor Kay Barnes’ downtown revitalization plan was strengthened with plans for a new arena, to be called the Sprint Center. Kemper Arena, although it had been renovated to add seating, was among the oldest in the country. Voters in August 2004 approved an increase in hotel and car-rental fees to fund the project, and the groundbreaking ceremony would be held June 24, 2005.

Mayor Kay Barnes’ vision for a new downtown arena crystallized dramatically Wednesday with the announcement of a long-awaited financing package that may include a major-league sports team.

Barnes unveiled details for the 18,000- to 20,000-seat Sprint Center, scheduled to open in 2007. It would cost $225 million to $250 million and be built at 14th Street and Grand Boulevard. She hopes it will house a National Hockey League or National Basketball Association franchise, plus a college basketball hall of fame.

“Today’s announcement is another major step forward in the revitalization of downtown Kansas City,” Barnes said in a presentation punctuated several times by applause. “The combination of the new arena with the H&R Block world headquarters and Kansas City Live (a planned entertainment district), plus the Performing Arts Center, will create a spectacular new district downtown.”

The project’s proposed funding would be 60 percent public money and 40 percent from private sources, not counting financing costs. The public portion includes a $4-a-day increase in rental car fees and a $1.50-a-night increase in a hotel fee — both of which must be approved by city voters. Barnes intends to have an ordinance introduced today to place those issues on the August ballot, and a majority of the council appears to support that.

“Most of Kansas City, Missouri, voters won’t be affected by either one of these increases,” Barnes said.

The private-side funding involves a $50 million investment from Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group, which operates arenas across the country and is run by former Kansas Citian Tim Leiweke. It also calls for $10 million from the National Association of Basketball Coaches, which will develop the hall of fame. A still-undetermined amount will come from locally based Sprint Corp. for the arena’s naming rights. There also will be a $1 or $2 surcharge on all tickets for arena events.

Leiweke, whose company owns stakes in NHL and NBA teams, said he had already talked to the commissioners of both leagues about Kansas City’s prospects and added in an interview that, “I’m fairly optimistic you’re going to have one or the other here when you open the doors.” …

The proposed arena site, almost four square blocks between Grand and Oak Street, 13th Terrace to Truman Road, has long been the preferred location because it would transform one of downtown’s most blighted sections. The land is now in the hands of DST Systems Inc. and UMB Bank. But a price for that land remains to be negotiated. …

If all goes well, Barnes wants the Sprint Center to open before she leaves office in April 2007. She gave no timetable on when construction would start. One step, though, involves the city requesting bids from architecture firms. That could begin this summer. Many of Kansas City’s renowned sports architecture firms have expressed a desire to be involved and design something “world-class” for their hometown.

For much of Barnes’ term as mayor, she has championed the need for a new arena to replace 30-year-old Kemper Arena, one of the oldest in the country. A new arena could offer many features missing from Kemper, ranging from wider concourses and more concessions to a potentially more lively location and a better ambiance, all of which could combine to attract more high-profile events. …

The arena proposal also has grown in size and scope.

An original consultant’s study recommended an 18,000-seat facility, smaller than Kemper, with a price tag of $170 million to $200 million. But the seating was expanded to a size typical of arenas with an NBA or NHL team. Also added was the college basketball hall of fame. …

Jim Haney, the coaches association’s executive director, said he expected the hall of fame to include memorabilia, exhibits and induction ceremonies of legendary college basketball players and coaches. Hall Family Foundation President Bill Hall, who has been involved with the fund raising, said the association would use its "best efforts" to raise $10 million. …

Still, nearly everyone at City Hall was caught up in the excitement of the arena’s possibilities. Possibilities of a new anchor for downtown, of another architectural jewel, of more big-name events. And the possibilities of major-league hockey or basketball returning to the city after an absence of decades.

“Kansas City had a lot of things in the past that didn’t last,” City Manager Wayne Cauthen said. “This is a new Kansas City.”