Johnson County commissioners left a cliff-hanger last November when they decided not to go ahead with rehabbing the former King Louie bowling alley: What would become of the landmark building at 8788 Metcalf Ave. that was to house the county museum, Enterprise Center and voting facilities? And where would those county services end up, if not the King Louie?
After its first work session on the subject last week, the commission appeared to be as divided as ever on the subject. The session ended with no clear consensus on what should happen to the building the county bought in 2011 or what to do with the museum, which has suffered from flooding, parking and space deficiencies in its current building.
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The property was bought originally with an eye to installing a regional museum of suburbia there. When that idea fell through, the commission began to consider other possibilities for the building, including the Enterprise Center, which leases space elsewhere, advance voting, which has been at Metcalf Shopping Center, and perhaps parking for the county buses. In addition, the Johnson County Museum would leave its space at 6305 Lackman Road for the larger space and more parking the former bowling alley had to offer.
But all those plans came to a halt last fall when proponents couldn’t get enough votes to issue the necessary $10.3 million in bonds. Now the commission must decide what to do with a building it bought for $2 million and sunk another $1.6 million into to stabilize. The King Louie has been vacant since 2009 and needed roof repair and wiring to get it ready for rehab.
Commission Chairman Ed Eilert tried to put the wheels back on the multi-use plan at the work session, saying the large, high-ceilinged space inside, uninterrupted by supporting posts, would be ideal for the museum. And having space for the Enterprise Center would save money spent on rent, he said.
In addition, a recent announcement that Macy’s will close its Metcalf South anchor store has made the future of advanced voting there uncertain.
“We can’t keep putting off everything for some other day,” Eilert said. “We would have been built out and on our way to completion if we’d had a 4-3 vote in favor a couple of months ago.” The vote on the bonds was 4-3 against.
However, his plan was not met with universal enthusiasm. Commissioner Steve Klika was skeptical of the need for a large centralized building like the King Louie for county functions. He has said he would rather the county put a new courthouse at the top of its capital improvements list.
“If the chairman has got the votes to carry this thing through next week or whenever he wants to bring it up, let’s do it and get it over with and move on,” he said.
Commissioner Ed Peterson asked what the alternative plan would be. “If we don’t go forward with the King Louie as a museum, we still have a problem with the museum,” he said. The museum has tried in years past and failed to acquire adjacent land so it can expand to handle the growing number of visitors, said museum director Mindi Love. Museum supporters have long argued that the 87-year-old core building and its additions are inadequate for exhibits.
But commissioners were even in disagreement on whether the museum should be relocated all to one place or decentralized and parceled out to exhibits at libraries, as Commissioner Michael Ashcraft has suggested. “We need to think differently about how we provide services,” he said.
Making the museum’s future even more uncertain is the fact that its funding is ensnared in the debate over the mortgage registration fee in the Kansas Legislature. The museum gets most of its revenue from the Heritage Trust Fund, and that money comes from a fee paid on real estate sales. Legislators are considering an end to that fee. If that happens it could cost the county $16 million to 17 million per year.
Then there’s the King Louie building itself. Peterson said if the commission can’t agree on how to go forward, maybe the next step should be an appraisal to see what they could get for the structure on the real estate market. “I think there’s a presumption out there that this property can be readily disposed of and I tend to doubt that presumption,” he said.
The lack of consensus left some county administrators confused about what to do next. “I’m not quite sure what our next step is,” said facilities director Joe Waters. “Some on the commission have mentioned a possible Plan B. I don’t know what that looks like. What is Plan B?”