Ten years ago, the most popular attraction in downtown Kansas City had as much to do with agriculture as urban energy.
The Downtown Council says a trip to the City Market topped the list of things to do in 2002, a year when all of downtown drew about 2.5 million visitors.
Times definitely have changed, according to a new report by the council.
Thanks to the huge investment that’s occurred the past half-dozen years in such entertainment venues as the Power & Light District, Sprint Center and Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the number of downtown visitors soared to 13.4 million last year, a 445 percent increase, the report said.
“Those major investments have really been game-changers,” said Mike Hurd, marketing director and author of the report. “They’ve turned the heart of downtown into a major destination for fun, sports, entertainment and dining.”
The new estimate of visitor growth comes as a counterweight to a recent report in The Star that private employment has shrunk downtown during roughly the same period by 19.6 percent.
But Jon Stephens, the interim president and CEO of the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association, said the dramatic increase in visitors vindicated the billions of dollars in investment, much of it subsidized by taxpayers, when it came to putting downtown back on the map.
“We are consistently hearing from visitors to Kansas City that their experience downtown is one of the biggest positives of Kansas City,” he said. “In 2002, they were visiting and having conventions in Kansas City in spite of the experience they had downtown.
“Civic leaders rallied and responded, and I feel they delivered.”
According to the self-reported visitors survey, which Hurd acknowledged was far from scientific, the eight-block Power & Light District, which gradually began opening in late 2007, was far and away the biggest attraction last year, attracting 9.1 million visitors.
“The Power & Light District has become the central gathering point for the city,” he said.
Nick Benjamin, executive director of the entertainment district, attributed the area’s popularity to its tenants and promotional events, particularly free concerts, and its proximity to the Sprint Center. He said the visitor count was derived from nightly counts and monthly reporting by the district’s tenants.
“The diversity of options that we and the entirety of downtown offer — from a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse to dinner at the Bristol to a free Matt & Kim concert to the Big 12 Tournament at the Sprint Center — has created a tremendous draw,” Benjamin said.
Hurd said the entertainment district had done a good job seizing on local events to attract thousands of people. For example, later this month it will offer fan activities during the Major League Soccer All-Star Game occurring at Sporting Park.
“The Power & Light District is savvy about hosting big events,” he said.
The runner-up attraction to the entertainment district was the Sprint Center, which opened in October 2007 and had an estimated 1.1 million visitors last year.
Brenda Tinnen, the general manager of the arena, remembers how deserted downtown was when she visited in 2002. The iconic image then was a folding chair sitting in the middle of a forlorn parking lot where the arena was to be built.
“I do think the Sprint Center, Power & Light District and Kansas City Convention Center work very well together,” she said. “You can walk and get around easily to a lot of different establishments.
“It’s created a point of destination whereas in 2002 there wasn’t much reason to come downtown.”
The Downtown Council estimate failed to include a couple of other popular urban attractions: Crown Center, established decades before the recent reinvestment surge, and First Friday, the celebration of the arts in the Crossroads district that in nice weather draws up to 10,000 people per month.
Bill Lucas, president of Crown Center Redevelopment, estimated that 6.5 million people visited Crown Center last year, a figure that included its new Legoland and Sea Life Aquarium attractions. Back in 2002, about 5 million people came to Crown Center annually.
Adjusting the Downtown Council report with those Crown Center numbers shows that downtown saw a 165 percent jump in visitors from 2002 to 2012, still a very formidable figure.
“It reinforces what we’re trying to do to take downtown from being a 9-to-5 place to a 24/7 environment with innovative districts, offices, retail and residential,” said Bill Dietrich, president and CEO of the organization of downtown business and property owners.