Anyone trying to envision an alternative future for Kansas City’s Kemper Arena, could take a peek at what is now unfolding in Memphis.
That city’s oddball and long mothballed arena near the Mississippi River, called the Pyramid, is being renovated and will be redeployed next spring as a retail outlet for the Bass Pro Shops outdoors chain. (See this New York Times story for details.) The failed arena once served as the home of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. At 535,000 square feet, it’s a shade smaller than Kemper, and after opening in 1991 operated for only 13 years.
Kansas City officials are evaluating Kemper’s future in light of a proposal by the American Royal Association to raze and replace it with a smaller, mixed-use facility. The American Royal has now hit the pause button on its plan, and the city is preparing to seek potential new users for Kemper in a formal request-for-proposals process, which is expected to unfold in the coming months. The city currently burns nearly a million dollars a year in operating losses on Kemper, plus $2.3 million on bond payments, which are set to expire in the spring of 2016.
Now, I’m not saying that Bass Pro would be an ideal tenant for Kemper, given that the Missouri-based chain already has its footprint in the Kansas City area, as does Cabela’s and other large sporting-goods outlets.
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What I am saying, though, is that if a solution could be found for that landmark building in Memphis, however strange and woeful it might have appeared in recent years, then surely a feasible proposal could develop for the reuse of Kemper Arena, one that could serve the city, taxpayers and the West Bottoms district far better than would a wasteful demolition.
Perhaps a vision that combines public and commercial uses for Kemper will arise from the fog of this controversy. And perhaps down the road we will see how the West Bottoms became a livelier and more enriching part of the city as a result.