Forty years after it opened, Kemper Arena’s days appear to be numbered.
Yes, some people have long thought of the underused city-owned facility as the white elephant of the West Bottoms. And the coming of the Sprint Center in 2007 seemed to be the last — and perhaps lethal —tranquilizer dart with which to hasten the old beast’s end.
But now a tug of war is underway to determine whether the wobbling elephant can or should be revived.
At one end of the rope is a private developer, who wants to buy and redeploy the structure, plus historic preservationists who cherish Kemper’s significance as a pioneering work of modern architecture and engineering.
On the other side are the namesake Kemper banking family and leaders of the American Royal Association, who have been clamoring to demolish the 18,000-seat arena and replace it with a building more suited to the Royal’s needs.
The city, which owns and maintains the facility, is in the middle, and apparently leaning toward demolition.
Nevertheless, on Feb. 7 a state historic advisory board agreed to forward the arena’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. If successful, that status would help a developer receive state and federal historic tax credits. On the other hand, according to architectural historian Elizabeth Rosin, register status does not prevent demolition.
Rosin prepared the nomination on behalf of Foutch Brothers LLC, which has announced a plan to buy the arena from the city and invest $21 million to transform Kemper into a complex for youth sports and community recreation.
Rosin argues that the building, designed by architect Helmut Jahn and the Chicago firm of C.F. Murphy, “remains a unique Post-Modern interpretation of the enclosed sports arena, distinguished by its white shell, bold exoskeleton, and column-free interior space.”
Developer Steve Foutch envisions 1,000 kids a day going to the West Bottoms. “It’s a win-win for the city,” he said, and would spare taxpayers a $6.5 million demolition.
Mariner Kemper, son of the late R. Crosby Kemper Jr., CEO of UMB Financial Corp. and, significantly, chairman of the American Royal Association, contends that any renovation of the arena is impractical — mere duct tape — and would only prolong the inevitable.
“It’s throwing good money after bad,” he told me on Friday.
Kemper said he’d prefer to remember the great legacy of the arena, which largely was a gift to the city from his family, than to imagine what would become of the building if it were to be repurposed.
The American Royal, which has a long-term lease, has proposed a $60 million project to build a smaller building on the site and renovate adjacent Royal structures. The new building conceivably would attract more events beyond the Royal’s major fall presence. In addition to $10 million in private financing, the proposal projects at least $30 million in city funding plus state and federal money.
On Thursday, Mayor Sly James appeared to throw his support toward the Royal plan.
“(M)y goal,” James said in a statement, “is to keep the American Royal at its home, honor our contractual agreements, and bring more activity to the West Bottoms. It is my thought that all of this can be done by working collaboratively with the American Royal, and any other willing participants, to create a public-private partnership in bringing about a new multipurpose facility that can serve many of the interests being discussed.”
There was no sentiment in the mayor’s statement about the loss of a major architectural landmark. Time is running out for civic voices and/or investors to ensure that all possibilities have been explored to keep the elephant alive.