The big decision — turning the former King Louie bowling alley into a multi-use cultural center — has already been made. Now the real planning can begin.
For supporters of the future Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center, that planning is mostly practical. For adversaries, it’s political.
The Johnson County Commission’s decision to convert the 76,000-square-foot vacant building, 8788 Metcalf Ave., into a home for the county museum plus space for off-season Theater in the Park, arts activities and early voting drew a lot of testimony at a meeting last week. Although much of the testimony came from people urging a “yes” vote, a few of the speakers against the idea indicated they would continue to fight it.
One of those, Tracy Thomas of Shawnee, said she will try to get state government involved in stopping the project.
Thomas, a former member of the Shawnee City Council, said in an interview later that her crusade to stop the $22.2 million project is just beginning. She has plans to ask Ray Merrick, speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives and Stilwell resident, to investigate what she considers to be an illegal takeover of the Johnson County Park and Recreation District by the county commission. As a part of the action on the arts center, the commission voted to give the park district control over the building and museum operations.
The park district is a separate entity of county government with its own controlling board and its own tax levy. Thomas said the park district’s governing board, which separately approved the concept of merging the museum’s operations with the park district, is afraid to speak out against the plan because its members are appointed by the county commission.
When the county commission by a 6-1 vote approved the melding of those two entities the stated reason was that it would be best for one of them to oversee the new center, and the park district had more resources than the museum. The merger was agreed to in principal, but the specifics are still being worked out. However, the park district will continue to maintain its separation from the other county departments overseen by the county manager’s office. Commissioner John Toplikar cast the only “no” vote.
Merrick’s office, contacted by The Star this week, said it was not involved in any question specific to the King Louie plan.
Thomas also said she hopes to get Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt involved, possibly through a request from county commissioners who voted against the center. Two of those commissioners, Michael Ashcraft and Jason Osterhaus, said they had not been contacted and had no plans to ask for an opinion. Toplikar couldn’t be reached.
Although the commission’s majority decided to okay the plan, it won’t be really final until money is in the pipeline. It was at that point that the previous King Louie plan fell through in 2013, when a vote to authorize the bond sale failed.
Last week, commissioners, acting as the Public Building Commission, announced their intention to issue bonds for the project, but there’s a 30-day protest period after publication. A public hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. April 16.
On the practical side, museum and park officials have begun making plans and fine-tuning how the building will be used after its grand opening, planned for spring 2017.
The Overland Park Historical Society has asked for space in the center for its displays, which are currently in three sites in Overland Park and Stanley. Suzee Oberg, president, said the exhibits will have more of a chance to be seen in the King Louie location.
“It’s a very visible building, just the ideal place for something that people can get to,” she said.
The space will also be an improvement for the county museum, a building at 6305 Lackman Road in Shawnee that has inadequate space and mold damage from leaks and a previous flood.
The museum’s future location in the former ice rink will be much bigger, allowing for more of the 18,000 three-dimensional items to be displayed, said Mindi Love, museum executive director.
Less than 500 of those items are viewable by the public at the current museum, with the rest in storage in dry museum space or at a county warehouse. The King Louie space won’t be able to hold all the museum’s artifacts, she said, so whatever can’t be displayed will be stored in the warehouse once the museum relocates.
The final arrangements are still being worked out, but Love said the plan is to retain and freshen the Seeking the Good Life display on suburban living, which has been around since 1998, and to expand Kidscape, a hands-on exhibit that is popular with children.
Museum officials also plan to lift the 1950s All-Electric House off its foundation and move it in its entirety into the King Louie as a sort of “super artifact,” Love said.
The electric house, a home built to display electric technology that was new in the mid-20th century, was a big part of the Johnson County culture. Some 60,000 people toured that demonstration home at a time when the county’s total population was only 62,000, Love said.
Love and county park director Jill Geller said they have been collaborating on how to use other parts of the building, such as the theater and activity rooms, for school field trips to the museum.
Neither Love nor Geller expressed any reservations about the management agreement giving the park district oversight over the center and museum employees.