Steve Paul

American Royal needs to get real on Kemper Arena issue

The American Royal complex includes a visitors center and Hale Arena just south of Kemper Arena (right).
The American Royal complex includes a visitors center and Hale Arena just south of Kemper Arena (right). The Kansas City Star

Supporters of the American Royal showed up in force on a recent Monday as the Kansas City Council’s study of the fate of Kemper Arena continued.

They spoke up for the long civic history bound up in the annual livestock and horse show. And they applauded when points were made on their behalf during this public hearing, held at the arena, which Royal partisans would like to see demolished.

All that palpable passion surely counts for something. But in the matter of this important piece of city business, the American Royal’s arguments for replacing the city-owned Kemper Arena with a smaller facility and denying a developer’s proposal to reuse the historic structure make very little sense.

And they should not stand in the way of forging a larger vision that accomplishes both goals and helps spur new life in the West Bottoms.

American Royal officials, led by chairman Mariner Kemper, the banker whose family name has been attached to the arena for more than 40 years, are correct in determining that the looming white landmark has outlived its usefulness for their activities and for the kinds of entertainment now housed at the Sprint Center downtown. But they’re wrong about almost everything else.

That public meeting began with a brief tour of the other structures in the American Royal complex, whose replacement, repair and/or expansion would cause far less psychic pain than this long-running, dump-Kemper exercise.

When the tour peeked into Hale Arena, for instance, I was not the only one who wondered why the Royal needed another 5,000-seat bowl, as its plan calls for. Perhaps the Royal and the city ought to look at the possibility of expanding and modernizing Hale to encompass new uses rather than plop down a whole new building.

The Royal’s main argument for demolishing Kemper has two parts.

Part one: Leaving Kemper standing and building a new arena for the Royal on the parking lot to the east will diminish the ground space available for the Royal’s most successful and justifiably popular annual event, the World Series of Barbecue.

Part two: We want a new building and would rather not have to operate in the shadow of that one.

The first branch of the argument is specious. Anyone who has spent a minute in the West Bottoms knows there is plenty of ground space in the vicinity of Kemper. The barbecue contest, which spans one weekend of the year, can surely be accommodated if it needs to stretch out. As an outdoor festival, stretching it northward toward the nearby commercial district could provide the kind of neighborhood connection that everyone agrees needs to happen in the area.

The second branch is obviously arrogant and unconvincing.

The Royal partisans dismiss the proposal by developer Steve Foutch to turn Kemper Arena into a mecca for youth sports as a sketchy, underfunded pipedream.

Yet Royal officials are guilty of much the same speculation, by suggesting they will have the (heavily government-financed) facility and the capacity to create a center for agricultural education and spinoff activities encompassing food culture.

At an earlier hearing of the council’s Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee, Mariner Kemper blurted out the opinion that people focused on the arena’s architectural significance were thinking only of the “glass bump,” the atrium expansion attached to architect Helmut Jahn’s original design only 18 years ago. Clearly, on this point, Kemper has no idea what he’s talking about.

Three or four architects and others spoke up for saving the arena on historical legacy grounds and encouraged the city to embrace a larger vision of the West Bottoms. There was not quite as much applause for those arguments. But they made a lot more sense.

Steve Paul, editorial page editor: 816-234-4762, paul@kcstar.com; on Twitter: @sbpaul.

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