Government & Politics

American Royal makes a lofty bet on attendance with move to KCK

American Royal moving to Wyandotte County

Angie Stanland, then chairwoman of the American Royal board of directors, announced in 2016 a $160 million project to move the Royal from the West Bottoms to the Legends area of Wyandotte County.
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Angie Stanland, then chairwoman of the American Royal board of directors, announced in 2016 a $160 million project to move the Royal from the West Bottoms to the Legends area of Wyandotte County.

The American Royal thinks it can more than double the attendance at the new complex it is planning in Kansas City, Kan. — to roughly 700,000.

Last year at its longtime home in Kansas City, the Royal attracted 266,903 visitors.

After 117 years in Kansas City, where generations of livestock and agriculture enthusiasts gathered in the West Bottoms for horse shows and rodeos, the Royal announced last year it is pulling up roots and wants to build a $160 million complex in KCK in western Wyandotte County.

The huge attendance boost at the new complex may be a tall order, but Royal officials predict they can achieve it because they want to make the new Royal into a yearlong attraction. Now, the Royal is a 14-week series of autumn events.

The Royal made its beefed-up attendance forecast in a recent application to the state of Kansas for sales tax revenue (STAR) bonds, which would provide upfront cash to build the new complex.

The bonds are paid off over time by local and state sales taxes that the completed project generates. Increased attendance will be crucial; the more visitors that actually show up, the quicker the payoff for the bonds.

STAR bonds are powerful inducements and are given only to projects that Kansas deems as tourist destinations. Eligible projects are expected to pull in nearly a third of their annual visitors from more than 100 miles away.

Projections in the American Royal’s application for the STAR bonds indicates that the American Royal in KCK would bring in 669,253 attendees a year. Add in visitors to a planned education center and museum and the annual visitation is expected to top 1 million.

Paid ticket attendance to the American Royal facilities in the West Bottoms in 2016 was 11,980, according to Kansas City Hall records. Paid attendance to American Royal events in Kansas City in 2014, the last year that the World Series of Barbecue was held in the West Bottoms, was 45,308.

Lynn Parman, president and chief executive of the American Royal, said the $160 million new complex would allow the organization to hold events year round.

“The American Royal today is a 14-week season,” Parman said in an interview with The Star. “I think that’s what Kansas Citians have in mind when they think about the American Royal, they think of the barbecue, they think of the 14 weeks of livestock shows, equestrian shows, the rodeo.

“The American Royal of the future is much bigger than that,” she continued. “It will be an agriculture event center and the American Royal will be part of that. We will have agriculture and education events 365 days of the year.”

The American Royal’s plans for a new complex in KCK near the Kansas Speedway — another development that benefited from STAR bonds — include two new arenas, a 300,000-square-foot display and exhibition space and an agriculture education center.

The new complex, Parman said, will allow the American Royal to put on more events and programs than its current spot in the West Bottoms.

The American Royal’s attendance figures are based in part by research by the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

The department’s research begins by assuming a 25 percent increase in current American Royal attendance.

Josh Roe, deputy secretary at the department, said the 25 percent increase came from discussions with industry experts about how agriculture facilities fare after capital upgrades.

“You could never really find an apples-to-apples comparison,” Roe said. “It was more than an educated guess. We ran that number by several people in the industry. I wish I could point you to a link on the Internet that said it would.”

Beyond the 25 percent increase, the American Royal forecasts it can hold several additional events — horse shows, swine shows, dog events and camps, to name a few — that account for 148,000 more annual visitors.

A planned education center and museum would attract 374,024 annual visitors, according to the American Royal’s market study; add those numbers into total American Royal complex attendance and annual visitors top 1 million.

The American Royal’s future

Since the American Royal’s move to Kansas was announced in October, news about the idea has been quiet. Gov. Sam Brownback championed the effort, and he was joined by American Royals booster and interim Cerner chief executive Cliff Illig.

The announcement marked the planned beginning of the end for the American Royal in Kansas City, where it started as livestock and agriculture in the West Bottoms in 1899.

The American Royal leases the American Royal Complex from Kansas City and sought to redevelop the aging facilities, but could not come to terms with Kansas City leaders over a request for city subsidies.

The American Royal’s lease on the West Bottoms complex remains in effect until 2045. Parman said negotiations with Kansas City are continuing.

Brownback sought the American Royal’s presence in Kansas, helped along by the possibility of $80 million in STAR bonds.

If the American Royal receives the bond allocation, that leaves another $80 million that the American Royal has to raise on its own.

Angie Stanland, chair of the American Royal Board of Governors, said that the American Royal has received pledges but that a formal campaign has not yet started.

Stanland declined to discuss how much the American Royal has raised so far.

Neal Patterson, the Cerner co-founder who passed away last month, was a visible supporter of the American Royal. Stanland declined to discuss whether Patterson or his estate had left a contribution to the fundraising campaign.

“I think (Patterson’s passing) has given us clear direction to move forward, full steam ahead,” Stanland said. “He was clearly an advocate for the American Royal and was passionate about the continued growth of the American Royal and education in the agricultural community. He was very clear, after his passing, our momentum should not falter. We have stronger direction and probably a little more drive right now.”