Overland Park & Leawood

Park board revives hopes for King Louie

Plans for the former King Louie bowling alley on Metcalf Avenue, stuck on “pause” for the past year, came to life again this week, with the building re-imagined as an arts and cultural center with year-round theater and parks and recreation programming.

The county park and recreation board on Monday signaled its interest in pursuing the plan, which came from a collaboration among county staff, and county park and museum officials. Next it will go to the county commission in a work session scheduled for Thursday.

Details have yet to be worked out, but the newest proposal would call for the county museum to occupy about 22,800 square feet on the lower level of the 76,000-square-foot building. The upper level, where bowling once took place, would have a 10,000-square-foot theater plus rehearsal space and 9,800 square feet for advance voting and rental.

The Enterprise Center, the county’s small business incubator, had been mentioned as a possible tenant in earlier discussions by the county commission but was not a part of the latest plan. Its lease is set to run out in April.

If approved in its present form, the new King Louie, tentatively called the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center, would generate revenue for the increased programming through meeting and event space rental and performances. It would enable the Theater in the Park to operate in cold-weather months and is also envisioned as a place where other community theater groups could come to rehearse and perform.

“Rehearsal space and performance space is in huge demand in this city,” said Tim Bair, producing artistic director of Theater in the Park. “I don’t think there will be any problem renting it.”

In fact, estimates presented at the meeting showed the revenues coming in slightly higher than the operating costs. The part of the building devoted to park and rec programs and rental was expected to bring in about $85,000 more than yearly operating costs, while the museum portion’s excess could be $125,000.

If the county commission decides to develop the idea further, it might come up for a vote in February. The timeline projects the building to be ready for a “soft opening” in October 2016 — in time for advance voting on the presidential election. The grand opening would be in April 2017.

The presentation by county officials — including County Manager Hannes Zacharias, Park and Recreation director Jill Geller, Museum director Mindi Love and facilities manager Joe Waters — is the first movement on the building’s use since the idea went dormant about a year ago.

The former bowling alley has been unused since 2009. The county bought it in 2011 for around $2 million, after the building had begun to deteriorate.

In the following years, the county spent about $1.6 million to put on a new roof, rewired it and had other work done to stabilize the building enough that it could be rehabbed for other planned uses. The iconic, accordion-roofed building with uninterrupted space inside was eyed as a spot for a museum of suburbia. That idea proved unpopular with voters, however, and was eventually dropped by the county commission.

The next plan was to turn the King Louie into a new home for the Johnson County Museum and some other county offices, including the Enterprise Center and advanced voting. The museum has begun to outgrow the space and parking needs at its current home at 6305 Lackman Road in Shawnee.

But that plan also failed when commissioners couldn’t agree to issue the $10.3 million in bonds to begin the necessary remodeling.

That was about a year ago. Commissioners have discussed it a since then, but have not come up with a consensus on whether to use the building or try to sell it.

County officials at the meeting said the new plan would accomplish several things:

▪  It would provide new, expanded space for the county museum, said Love. The core 1927 museum building, a former stone schoolhouse, has been plagued by mold and water, and its nine additions, connected by narrow hallways, make it impossible to have school field trips of more than 60 people, she said. The museum could collaborate with other arts programming, and perhaps justify charging an admission in the new space, she said.

▪ It would provide more options for park programming, including spring break and theater camps, said Gellar.

Park board member Nancy Wallerstein said the county’s arts programs are full and most have wait lists because arts programs budgets are being cut from schools. “We need to find a way to provide this for our young people,” she said.

▪ Zacharias said putting King Louie back to use would also preserve an important part of the county’s iconic architecture from the 1950s and ’60s. The White Haven Motor Lodge and Glenwood Theatre both have been torn down, leaving the King Louie alone to represent that era, he said.

▪ Having an art and cultural center would also fit into Overland Park’s interest in having a creative district along that section of Metcalf, Zacharias said.

Commission Chairman Ed Eilert and Steve Klika, who attended the meeting, spoke of including “King Louie” in the new center’s name.

The project would require about $6.37 million in new spending for the parks and recreation space. Around $12 million has already been approved but not yet spent for the museum and advance voting space. The entire project, including money already spent to buy and upgrade the roof and wiring, comes to $22.2 million.

Park board member Michael Pirner expressed some skepticism about the idea and was the only member to vote against it. He said he supports the programming but does not like the King Louie.

Klika said he had been concerned about the museum’s ability to draw visitors in the larger space, but likes the idea of partnering with park department programs. “I’m getting more comfortable with the idea,” he said. “A community center focused around cultural affairs is not a bad thing for Johnson County.”