If you grew up in Kansas City and have great memories of going to Kemper Arena to see Jethro Tull, Bob Dylan, Muhammad Ali, Prince or any number of other sports or entertainment icons, you could be a small part of saving the building now.
A nomination is being prepared and will soon be sent off to the National Park Service to list Kemper Arena on the National Register of Historic Places because of its significance in local Kansas City cultural history.
The listing is crucial because it would qualify the building for historic tax credits, a key part of the financing for an ambitious plan to convert the building into a regional mecca for amateur youth, adult and family sports.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing this process wind up in a positive way. It’s been a long road,” said historic preservation consultant Elizabeth Rosin, who prepared the application for Foutch Brothers, the development company that Kansas City government officials have selected to try to save and repurpose Kemper Arena in the West Bottoms.
The building is only 42 years old, and most buildings on the National Historic Register are at least 50 years old. Plus, its potentially historic architectural significance was compromised by a 1990s addition.
But now, Rosin and others are optimistic it can qualify as historically significant because of all those concerts, sporting events and other milestones it provided from the 1970s through the early 2000s, until the Sprint Center opened in 2007.
That’s one eligible criterion for historic designation: a notable facility for recreation and culture.
The nomination has been processed through the Missouri State Historic Preservation Office, which will forward it July 12 to the National Park Service, after a required 30-day comment period.
The Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation approved an initial nomination in 2014 based on the building’s late-modern architectural design. But that was returned by the National Park Service, with the advice that it be rewritten to emphasize the historic nature of the events Kemper had hosted rather than the architecture.
Once it receives the new nomination, the National Park Service has 45 days to take action. It can approve the listing to the National Register, return the nomination for corrections or revisions, or deny it. But with this new submission and the state preservation office’s support, indications are that Kemper Arena can be listed.
It’s not guaranteed, but at this stage, “it usually gets listed,” said Paul Loether, the National Register chief with the National Park Service.
Loether said the agency doesn’t usually provide advice on revisions, as it has with the Kemper Arena nomination, and then turn around and deny it.
If it is listed, it would join hundreds of other Kansas City buildings on the historic register for local significance, said Amanda Crawley, executive director of the Historic Kansas City Foundation, which strongly supported the nomination.
In 2014, the foundation had included Kemper Arena on its most endangered buildings list, because it looked like the city was leaning toward demolishing it for a new American Royal building. But that plan went by the wayside.
The application to get national historic designation provides a nostalgic walk down memory lane. It illustrates how Kemper Arena was the stage on which many of the nation’s celebrities passed through Kansas City in the latter part of the 20th century.
Yes, it hosted the Republican National Convention that nominated Gerald Ford for president and Bob Dole for vice president in 1976.
But there was so much more. The inaugural event pitted the Kansas City Scouts hockey team against the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 2, 1974, attended by 15,000 fans.
Concerts and family entertainment featured Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Michael Jackson, Bob Hope, U2 and many more.
“The roster of performances reads like a who’s who of late-twentieth century pop music,” the nomination says.
Muhammad Ali staged an exhibition bout there after regaining the world heavyweight champion title from George Foreman.
And of course, the schedule included all the Big Eight and Big 12 tournaments, the Final Four in 1988, national gymnastics and figure skating championships, Future Farmers of America annual conventions, and the years of circuses and American Royal livestock events.
The nomination notes that Kemper was an exceptional civic and community resource and a perfect multipurpose “expression of the times” in midcentury America.
Now, Rosin points out, many old arenas have been demolished, replaced by more elaborate entertainment and sports palaces emphasizing luxury suites and amenities. They cater to the affluent and are less egalitarian.
“Not everyone could enjoy the luxury facilities, and rising ticket prices reduced the number of events that most patrons could afford to attend,” the nomination says. “The public purpose of the arena was lost for the sake of securing the revenue stream demanded by the professional sports teams.”
That’s why it’s doubly important to preserve Kemper Arena, Rosin says, adding in the nomination, “The nationwide loss of mid-twentieth century multipurpose arenas enhances the rarity and significance of Kemper as an example of its property type.”
Foutch Brothers specializes in historic renovations, has worked with Rosin for years and is very familiar with the process to get historic designation and pursue historic tax credits, said Steve Foutch, managing partner for the company.
The Kansas City public has heartily endorsed the company’s plan to repurpose the arena for a host of regional youth and adult sports teams, including indoor soccer, basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, dance, fitness, a multilane running and bicycling track and numerous other sports purposes.
Foutch said he hopes one or two of the key anchor tenants can be announced soon.
In April, Kansas City municipal government paid off the last of the bonds for Kemper’s 1990s expansion. But the building has been virtually mothballed for several years, and the city hopes to transfer the property to a private owner by late September, thus relieving taxpayers of the $1 million annual maintenance cost.
If all goes as planned, Foutch would be that private owner and would redevelop the facility by the end of 2017 at an estimated cost of $25 million to $30 million. About one-third of that financing is contingent on historic tax credits.
The proposal for a reimagined Kemper Arena would add a second floor at the facility’s balcony level, more than doubling the court space for all those team sports.
Some have questioned how Foutch Brothers can retain the building’s historic integrity with that second floor addition. But Steve Foutch said he has already talked to the National Park Service about the second floor. He knows there will be conversations and negotiations about how to make that addition appropriately, but he said that’s how the plans will proceed.
While the National Register nomination proceeds, the city is vetting the plan’s financial viability. The project’s request for tax abatement is also under review. City officials said they hope those evaluations will be completed in a few months.
For Foutch, who first proposed redeveloping Kemper Arena in early 2014, it’s gratifying that the city has finally selected his plan (from a request for proposals) as the most viable to save the building. He sees all these remaining details as just part of the normal development process.
“The biggest hurdle was getting through the RFP,” he said. “Now we’re just down to 100 little hurdles to get over.”