Government & Politics

In Johnson County vote, King Louie building will live on, but with a different vision

An artist’s conception of the outdoor area of the redesigned King Louie building.
An artist’s conception of the outdoor area of the redesigned King Louie building.

It won’t be a National Museum of Suburbia. And it definitely won’t be a bowling alley or ice skating rink ever again.

But barring unforeseen problems, the huge accordion-roofed King Louie building at 8788 Metcalf Ave. in Overland Park will house Johnson County’s museum and a center for artists and theater groups throughout the metro area.

After almost four years of failed plans and agonized debate, the Johnson County Commission voted 4-3 on Thursday to go ahead with a plan to revive the iconic 1960s-era building as a multi-use cultural center with meeting space and a location for early voting.

The narrow vote ended the suspense over what would happen with the idle building that has become a magnet to critics of the both the purchase and the plans for it.

The new Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center will be built at a cost of $22.2 million, with bonds that will cost the county $1.5 million a year for 20 years. If all goes according to plan, the building should be open for advance voting in the August 2016 primaries. The grand opening is expected to be in spring 2017.

“I’ve talked to over 100 of my constituents, and when I ask them about King Louie, here’s what they say: It’s time to move on,” Commissioner Steve Klika said in explaining his support for the project.

“Let’s get past the politics of this project and start getting excited about the project and how it will add to the quality of life here in Johnson County.”

Klika had opposed the King Louie purchase in his campaign before joining the County Commission in 2013 and was instrumental in putting a stop to one of the previous plans. A different previous plan would have turned the building into a national museum commemorating suburbia.

He said he now supports the arts center because the public will be able to use it more than if it had been office space, as once was planned. He also liked the idea that it will create space for public arts programming and that it will preserve the building and the museum.

Turning the 76,000-square-foot former King Louie West into a cultural center solves several problems for the county:

▪ It provides a new and larger home for the county museum, which has been plagued by water and mold problems in its current location in Shawnee.

▪ It gives early voters a place to go that will not change from year to year.

▪ And it will be a place for Theater in the Park — now a warm weather operation — to hold performances in winter.

Another selling point for the commission is the fact that the building will generate its own revenue. The county parks department, which will oversee the center, has plans to lease event space to the public and especially to theater and arts groups that need it. The larger space will allow the museum to display more of its items, and possibly charge fees in the future as well.

Nevertheless, there was much pointed criticism from the public before the vote.

“This is probably the biggest boondoggle and fiasco that the county has tried to perpetrate on the public,” said Nancy Hanahan of Overland Park. “It seems to me (the arts center) is a cover-up for a bad real estate deal. The county should never have bought it.”

Former commission chairwoman Annabeth Surbaugh also weighed in against the arts center, saying she is disappointed the county hasn’t done more instead to get a new courthouse.

Supporters of the arts center lauded the expanded space for the arts and the preservation of the iconic building.

John Ras of Olathe said his family has been active in Theater in the Park, and that he can attest to the need for more theater storage, performance and practice space.

Scott Lane of Merriam noted that the King Louie building represents the “car culture” of Johnson County as it was growing in the 1950s and ’60s.

“As stewards of our future we are also stewards of our past,” Lane said. “If this doesn’t go through we have the potential of losing a tremendous Metcalf corridor destination.”

However, three commissioners who voted against the project said they couldn’t justify it in light of the needs of other departments, such as mental health and services for those with developmental disabilities.

John Toplikar, Jason Osterhaus and Michael Ashcraft voted against. Voting for it were Chairman Ed Eilert, Klika, Ron Shaffer and Jim Allen.

The county has started a web site, newkinglouie.com, devoted to the project.

No bowlers or ice skaters have visited King Louie since it was closed in 2009. That, coincidentally, was the same year the County Commission decided to start looking for a new home for the county museum at 6305 Lackman Road.

The museum, a warren of hallways through multiple additions from the original 1927 building, had flooded and now suffers persistent problems with mold.

The county bought the King Louie in 2011 for about $2 million. The first plan was for a National Museum of Suburbia, which would have been a regional attraction requiring heavy private donations.

That plan attracted national attention and quickly drew critics who questioned the purchase in light of the recession and the county’s other needs.

The national museum idea eventually died, leaving the commission with an empty structure that needed $1.6 million in repairs and weatherizing to keep it from deteriorating further.

The next multi-use plan had some of the same elements seen Thursday. It would have included office space for the Enterprise Center, a business incubator that now leases space; early voting; and the county museum, as well as parking for the county transit system.

The commission appeared set to approve that blueprint, but it came undone in 2013 when there weren’t enough votes to authorize the $10.3 million bond sale. At the time Klika, who wasn’t on the commission when the building was purchased, questioned its necessity.

And there things stood.

After weeks of behind-the-scenes collaboration between the county, museum and parks department, the Arts and Heritage Center plan emerged late last year. The commission’s vote Thursday sets the wheels in motion for further design work before construction begins.

Skeptics, including some on the commission, have questioned many aspects of the idea along the way. Toplikar has doubted the need for spending on a new arts center when there are still some large tracts of land the county bought years ago that have not been developed into promised parks.

The purchase price of the building also has been called into question. The county did not get an appraisal before it bought the King Louie. Later, their appraiser’s report said the best use for resale would be to demolish it.

County officials have defended the choice, though, saying the appraisal wasn’t based on their planned rehabilitation of the building. Besides, the $6.50 per square foot the county paid was close to or less than to the $6 to $16 per square foot for comparable property, officials have said.

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