American Royal heads west to pursue $160 million complex in Wyandotte County

After 117 years in Kansas City, the American Royal wants to steer west into Wyandotte County where Kansas would help fund up to half of a new, $160 million complex near the Village West shopping district.

American Royal board members joined Gov. Sam Brownback, Unified Government Mayor Mark Holland and business leaders like Cerner Corp. co-founder Cliff Illig on Tuesday to announce the American Royal’s plans for a new complex for the agricultural trade group in western Wyandotte County.

“It’s a culmination of years of hard work, partnership and dedication of people who can see a vision for Kansas, for Kansas City and the American Royal,” Brownback said at a news conference at the Kansas Speedway. “The vision is coming true, the American Royal is moving to a new home.”

The $160 million project would consist of two arenas, one that would seat 5,000 to 8,000 visitors, and another with about 2,000 seats for smaller events. It would also include a 300,000-square-foot display and exhibition space and an education center.

“We will have a complex similar in design, but it will be a very purpose-built complex for agriculture education and events,” said Angie Stanland, a Cerner executive who earlier this year became chairwoman of the American Royal board of directors. “And we are very excited to say that it will also house a specifically designed agriculture education center ... which we don’t have in the West Bottoms.”

The American Royal got its start in 1899 under a tent in the Kansas City Stockyards on the Missouri side of the West Bottoms. For decades, the institution stood as a symbol of Kansas City’s agricultural heritage. As Kansas City’s economy diversified over the years, the American Royal became better known locally for the massive World Series of Barbecue. That event’s kickoff this week at the Kansas Speedway seemed to presage where the American Royal wanted to go.

“In Kansas City, obviously it’s known for the barbecue because it’s our largest fundraiser,” Stanland said. “But across the country, youth exhibitors know the American Royal for hosting the livestock competition and for our equestrian events. It’s an honor for a contestant to make it to the American Royal.”

If it all comes to fruition, it would realize a long-term goal for Brownback, who is said to be personally interested in the idea of the American Royal boosting Kansas’ image as an agriculture center.

“Bringing the American Royal to Kansas is something we’ve worked on for a very long time,” said Eileen Hawley, press secretary for Brownback.

It also marks the end of a long and at times tense standoff between the American Royal and Kansas City, Mo.

After the news of the American Royal’s plans became public, Kansas City Mayor Sly James said its leaving marked the end of an era:

“Nobody wants to see them leave. It’s been a long institution,” he said. “I’m used to change and sometimes change is good. ...We hope this is good change.”

The move by the Royal won’t be a big catch for Kansas in terms of jobs — the American Royal has 14 full-time employees — but it does carry weight in agricultural prestige.

STAR bonds

To help bring the American Royal over, Kansas would authorize up to $80 million in sales tax revenue (STAR) bonds, a powerful inducement that redirects local and state sales taxes generated by a project to pay for development costs.

STAR bonds were first used in Wyandotte County for the Kansas Speedway and have been subsequently leveraged for other big-ticket projects in western Wyandotte County, including Children’s Mercy Park and Village West. The American Royal may be a continuation of that legacy if the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kan., passes a measure to create a STAR bond district.

Such a district would cover about 500 acres of mostly undeveloped ground west of the Village West development. The district, which the Unified Government commission will first take up publicly at its Thursday meeting, is bounded by 110th Street to the east, 118th Street to the west, State Avenue to the south and Parallel Parkway to the north.

It would also include the Plaza at the Speedway development, which includes a Wal-Mart and a Kohl’s, where incremental increases of new state sales tax revenues could be applied to the bonds.

The American Royal would cover just a portion of that district. As a nonprofit, the American Royal wouldn’t pay property taxes or the sales taxes needed to repay up to $80 million in STAR bonds. The Unified Government and Kansas will hope that other private developers flock to the district, ones like hotels, convention space retailers and others that would generate sales tax.

“We have a path toward building the asset,” Holland said.

Brownback defended the use of STAR bonds while Kansas continues to deal with budget difficulties. “It’s always a question, isn’t it?” he quipped.

He told reporters that developments like the Kansas Speedway, Children’s Mercy Park and others probably would not exist without STAR bonds.

“This was a soybean field and 20 houses not that long ago,” he said, referring to the area before the Speedway. “This, I think, has been a highly successful model.”

It’s not the first time Brownback had to stick up for STAR bonds for the American Royal project. The Kansas Senate earlier this year overrode his veto of a provision to restrict the use of STAR bonds in Wyandotte County. Lawmakers expressed concern there wasn’t enough oversight. The Kansas House, however, did not override the veto.

“We’re going to get some income off of this,” Brownback predicted.

Where does the rest, the other $80 million of the $160 million project, come from?

“We’re raising the rest,” said Mariner Kemper, chief executive of UMB Financial Corp.

That would amount to a significant private effort. The University of Missouri-Kansas City raised $48 million that way for its proposed downtown arts campus, which included a $20 million challenge grant from Julia Irene Kauffman in 2013.

Illig, the Cerner co-founder, expressed confidence that an $80 million effort could succeed.

“This is about a community that understands what its roots are,” Illig said.


An education center

American Royal leaders lauded the plans for an agricultural education center within the proposed complex. They think it can grow the organization’s reputation as a place for youngsters to learn how the industry works.

Lynn Parman, president and chief executive of the American Royal since November, said 5,600 elementary school children came to the West Bottoms in September for the American Royal’s School Tours program.

“They learned about agriculture, they learned about where their food comes from,” Parman said. “Many of them saw animals for the first time.”

Kemper also emphasized the educational nature of the American Royal.

“Our children have lost connection with how food is made. ... They don’t understand that it comes from deep callouses and hard work,” Kemper said.

The American Royal would like to expand these programs, but things were too cramped in the West Bottoms.

“We’ve loved it down here for all this time, but I’ll tell you, we’re just out of room,” said Charlie Tetrick, an executive with Walz Tetrick Advertising and American Royal director.

Leaving Kansas City

American Royal officials said Kansas approached the organization as it grappled with Kansas City leaders over the redevelopment of the current American Royal Complex.

“It’s not a contentious thing,” Tetrick said of the American Royal’s decision to leave. “It’s going to be easy to be misconstrued that way.”

But things did get tense during 2014, when the American Royal pursued its vision of a $50 million, 5,000-seat arena that would replace the aging Kemper Arena, plus improvements to the Royal complex.

The American Royal’s plans sought significant public subsidies. One proposal asked City Hall for $30 million, plus a $1 million annual subsidy for 30 years.

That proved to be a lofty request for City Hall, which also considered a competing plan by the Foutch Brothers development company to convert Kemper Arena into a recreational sports facility for far less direct public subsidy.

At one point in 2014, lifetime American Royal governor and Cerner CEO Neal Patterson said in a speech that he and Mariner Kemper would demolish Kemper Arena at their own $5 million expense if the city would agree to its subsidy request. Kemper called the tradeoff “our last offer to get the positive results for the city.”

The American Royal also threatened to sue the Foutch Brothers for interfering with its lease with the city. Foutch Brothers temporarily backed off, but now it has jumped back on its plans to turn Kemper Arena, renamed Mosaic Arena, into a recreational sports complex.

The American Royal has a lease with Kansas City that runs until 2045. Stanland said they plan to honor that lease and said the American Royal continues to have a partnership with Kansas City.

The lease wasn’t a financial windfall for Kansas City in recent years.

According to Kansas City spokesman Chris Hernandez, the city received $55,000 this year and last year from the American Royal for the use of the complex. That was down from $197,000 when the World Series of Barbecue last took place in the West Bottoms.

The American Royal eventually stopped pursuing a new plan in the West Bottoms. They said the public debate over their request was not healthy for the organization’s image and began looking at sites in Wyandotte and Clay counties.

“We realize that history,” Stanland said. “But we also realize there’s value in strong partnership.”

As for the future of the West Bottoms without the Royal, Kansas City leaders see an opportunity.

“This may open the door, frankly, to a broader, more focused approach to redevelopment,” James said. “Because we wouldn’t have to work around the American Royal facility.”

Bill Haw Sr., a longtime West Bottoms developer who once served on the American Royal’s executive committee, shared a similar sentiment.

“If that space is liberated, along with Kemper Arena, I feel like there are several things that could be done that are beneficial for the neighborhood,” Haw said.

He also predicted exhibitors to the American Royal may be happier in their new environs.

“I look at it as a complete win-win deal,” Haw said. “I hope it goes through. I feel we can do some things that have more urban relevance down here, and they can do things that have more agricultural relevance out there.”

Kemper, whose family lineage goes back four generations in Kansas City business affairs, acknowledged some sense of nostalgia about the American Royal’s place in the West Bottoms, but added that it could exist anywhere.

“I don’t know that the American Royal needs to be anywhere than in the region,” Kemper said. “Sure, I have a lot of nostalgia. There’s a lot of history there. Did we try to make something work there? Sure.”

He added about Kansas and the Unified Government: “These guys stepped up.”

Does that mean Kansas City did not?

“No,” Kemper said. “Absolutely not.”

The Star’s Lynn Horsley contributed to this story.

Steve Vockrodt: 816-234-4277, @st_vockrodt

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