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Commission signals possible interest in King Louie proposal

FILE PHOTO

Plans for an arts and cultural center for community theater, the county museum and year-round Theater in the Park at the former King Louie bowling alley got a second boost Thursday, this time from the Johnson County Commission.

Commissioners gave the go-ahead to staff members to continue to look into the proposal, which was introduced to the park and recreation board three days earlier.

The 4-3 vote during a special committee meeting does not commit the county to the project, which is still in planning stages. It does signal that commissioners are interested enough to look deeper into the proposal. The commission will consider in January whether to spend about $100,000 for expert advice on the finer points.

No final vote to commit to the project is expected until sometime in February.

The 76,000-square-foot building would house the county museum on its lower level and a theater and rehearsal and classroom space upstairs. Park and recreation representatives said the creative space would allow more options for classes and space rental for theater groups, as well as events space. All those activities would bring in revenue from rental and class fees.

In addition, the plan provides for space for advance voting, which had been done at the now-closed Metcalf South shopping mall, a few blocks south of the King Louie.

The cost of the project would be about $22.2 million. Most of that money has either been spent to acquire and fix the building or already budgeted but not yet spent. Around $6.37 million in new spending would need to be approved to complete the project.

The distinctive accordion-roofed King Louie building at 8788 Metcalf Ave. has been unused since 2009. The county bought it in 2011 for about $2 million and then spent another $1.6 million to repair it enough to stop further decay.

Plans for its development have been stalled for more than a year. The commission has discussed a multi-use plan that involved moving the museum, advanced voting, the Enterprise Center and some bus parking to the property. That idea fell through when it came time to approve the $10.3 million in bonds.

The latest plan omits the Enterprise Center, which will move when its lease runs out in April. Chairman Ed Eilert said the next lease is expected to be a 50 percent savings over the $250,000 the center now pays. The bus parking idea also has been scuttled.

Proponents of the new plan expect the revenue coming in from fees and rentals to more than pay for operating costs. In addition, the open space would enable the county museum to improve its exhibits and begin charging admission. They estimated that some 200,000 people would use the building per year, with more during election years.

Commissioners John Toplikar, Jason Osterhaus and Michael Ashcraft all voted against the idea. Toplikar and Osterhaus expressed reservations about competition with other art projects such as the InterUrban Art House in Overland Park and Lenexa’s plan for a theater at the civic center it is building near Renner Boulevard and 87th Street Parkway.

“This will more or less be government getting more and more into the arts and spending more money into arts and culture, and I don’t know if that’s exactly what the public wants at this time,” Toplikar said.

Ashcraft cited budget “magic” the commission did as it approved 2015 spending — a reference to last-minute changes the commission made to accommodate the phase-out of the mortgage registration fee.

Steve Klika, who had been an influential vote to halt the bond sale last year, said he changed his mind and voted in favor this time because of the potential benefit to the community.

He said he voted in favor of proceeding because “we’ve messed with this issue long enough.” The county should either decide on a plan or get rid of the building, he said. “Either that or the money we put into this facility is going to further go down the tube and whatever loss we’ve got on it right now is only going to get worse,” Klika said.

The county bought the building for $6.50 per square foot at a time when comparable property went for $6 to $16 per square foot, said County Manager Hannes Zacharias. Were the county to sell it, most of its value is as a lot and not in the building, he said. After demolition, the value is estimated at around $850,000.

The commission was the last party to green-light the cultural arts concept. It had already been approved by the county Park and Recreation Board and the Museum Advisory Council.

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