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Shriners International will bring big convention to Kansas City in 2020

A band helped celebrate the announcement Thursday of Shriners International selecting Kansas City for its 2020 national convention. VisitKC and Shriners International made the announcement Thursday at Municipal Auditorium.
A band helped celebrate the announcement Thursday of Shriners International selecting Kansas City for its 2020 national convention. VisitKC and Shriners International made the announcement Thursday at Municipal Auditorium. jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

Kansas City has netted its first giant convention since a new downtown hotel deal was announced earlier this year.

Shriners International said Thursday it will bring about 20,000 people to Kansas City for its 2020 national convention, and it attributed its decision in part to the downtown streetcar and plans for the new 800-room hotel.

The convention, scheduled for July 5-9, 2020, is expected to fill thousands of hotel rooms and pump about $18 million into the area’s economy, according to convention planners.

The nonprofit organization, best known for its ongoing philanthropy for Shriners Hospitals for Children in the United States, Canada and Mexico, has not held its convention here since 1976.

The organization is the largest to commit to Kansas City since officials announced a deal in May to build a high-rise Hyatt hotel just east of the Bartle Hall Grand Ballroom. Supporters hope the hotel can open by mid to late 2018.

Three other conventions, ranging in size from 4,500 to 7,000 people, have also recently announced they will come to Kansas City between 2018 and 2021.

“Downtown hotel rooms close to the convention center are always a significant issue when it comes to having a convention of our size,” said Jeff Sowder, a board member with Shriners International and the man who will be in charge of the 2020 convention.

Another big factor in the Shriners’ decision was the streetcar system that next year will begin carrying residents, visitors and conventioneers from the River Market to Crown Center.

But Sowder, who lives in Toronto, Kan., not far from Wichita, also acknowledged that he is the first person from this part of the country in many years to take this type of leadership position with Shriners International. He will be imperial potentate for 2020, and he said it was natural to locate the event in his home region.

He said Kansas City’s central U.S. location made it an attractive destination, and Shriners and their spouses will take full advantage of Kansas City’s downtown Power & Light entertainment district as well as the Convention Center.

The 2020 national convention will be the 146th Imperial Session for an organization that dates to 1870. It started that year with a gathering of Masons in New York City, and the first formal chapter meeting was held Sept. 26, 1872. Founders said they wanted to start a fraternity focused on fun and fellowship rather than just ritual, and early group members distinguished themselves with a hat — a red fez.

In 1922, the Shriners founded the first Shriners Hospital for Children in Shreveport, La. It now has 22 children’s hospitals in North America with a $750 million annual budget.

Sowder said the Kansas City convention will include serious business sessions but also lots of good times, with a funny motor car competition, a classic car show, and band, horse patrol and clown competitions.

“It’s all about having fun and helping kids,” he said.

Officials with Visit KC, Kansas City’s convention bureau, have said the new convention hotel will be a game changer, although they have cautioned that most bookings don’t begin until construction starts.

Still, the organization recently announced three other convention bookings partly attributable to the new hotel: 5,000 people for the American Public Works Association in 2018, 7,000 for Quilts Inc. in 2019 and 4,500 with the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science in 2021.

Even as convention planners take a closer look at Kansas City because of the hotel, the project faces a challenge by a group of petitioners. They have turned in signatures calling for the City Council to put the hotel project up for a public vote.

“The citizens should have a say in it,” said Dan Coffey, a spokesman for the petitioners.

Coffey said that since public money is involved in financing the hotel, voters should determine whether the city should build it.

The convention hotel is currently estimated to cost about $311 million, with about $164 million of that coming from public funding sources. But the project does not rely on the general fund or require the city to guarantee the debt.

Election authorities are counting the signatures and should determine next week if the group gathered the 1,700 required signatures of registered voters for such a petition initiative. If more signatures are required, the group will have 10 more days to qualify.

But even if Coffey’s group gathers enough signatures, there may be legal impediments that could keep the petition initiative off a public ballot.

City Manager Troy Schulte said he signed a contract Tuesday on behalf of the city with the hotel developers. That contract allows the hotel development to move forward toward design and final bond financing, and petition initiatives can’t overturn signed contracts that would cause the city to be in breach of contract.

“It’s full steam ahead to get finished up on the design work and get this under construction,” said attorney Mike Burke, who is part of the hotel development team.

Burke said the petition initiative effort is “too little, too late” because the development team now has an approved, signed and enforceable contract. He said he is confident the project will have all the investors it needs to close the deal by the end of this year or early next year.

Coffey said his group anticipated the city would try to avoid a public vote on the hotel but is willing to push for that.

“I guess we’ll just see them in court, if it comes to that,” Coffey said.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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