KC embraced big-league businessman

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has honored 53 people over five decades as “Kansas Citian of the Year.”

Only one was not a Kansas Citian.

That may say it all about Texan and Arkansas native Lamar Hunt. Community icons like the Kansas City Chiefs, Worlds of Fun and the world-class SubTropolis underground warehouse and business center are Hunt’s looming business legacy here.

“When people think of Lamar Hunt, they think of Kansas City,” said chamber president Pete Levi.

Few other local luminaries can make the same claim.

“Lamar Hunt put on us on the world map” with the Chiefs, Levi said. “Then he invested back in this community, which is something he didn’t have to do.”

Kansas Citians embraced him for it.

At a Chiefs game years ago, Levi recalled Hunt roaming the pregame parking lot and schmoozing easily with tailgaters.

“He was like a rock star,” Levi said. “People came up to him to shake his hand and take a picture with him.”

Hunt’s death marks the end of an era for one of the region’s most successful and diverse companies. Hunt and his Kansas City-based Hunt Midwest Enterprises have engaged in an eclectic variety of businesses ranging from real estate to roller coasters.

The Chiefs were his highest-profile local enterprise. Hunt sold his Kansas City Wizards pro soccer franchise to a local ownership group earlier this year after flirting with moving the franchise to another city.

It is hard to imagine what Kansas City would be today without the NFL franchise that stamped the town “big league.”

Hunt moved his fledgling Dallas Texans American Football League franchise here in 1963.

The timing was just about perfect for Kansas City.

“The late ’60s was when cities began to act as destinations,” said Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association president Rick Hughes.

The NFL franchise and its regional drawing power are today one of the foundation blocks of Kansas City’s tourism industry.

Lee Derrough, Hunt Midwest’s president and chief executive, has spent four decades with Hunt as an employee and friend.

“I’ve been a Kansas City guy my whole life,” Derrough said. “It’s a heck of lot better place because he showed up. … His companies employ a lot of people and add vision and vitality to the life of the community.”

Hunt Midwest is one of many moving pieces that make up Unity Hunt Inc., Hunt’s Dallas-based, privately held family holding company.

Derrough said part of Hunt’s genius was to let others run his companies.

“He’s very hands-off in dealing with myself and others,” Derrough said. “What they’re doing in Dallas, we honestly have no clue.”

Derrough said Hunt’s massive business investment in Kansas City began in earnest after the Chiefs’ second or third season here.

“That’s when they decided to expand their Kansas City interests,” Derrough said. “The Chiefs begat Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun.”

Worlds of Fun, built by Hunt predecessor firm Mid-America Enterprises Inc., opened in 1973. The sister theme parks were sold in the mid-’90s to Ohio-based Cedar Fair LP, one of the industry’s top operators today.

Hunt Midwest emerged in 1985 after a merger of Mid-America and Great Midwest Corp., a mining and real estate operation that Hunt had helped to organize as a minority shareholder.

Hunt Midwest’s real estate activities operate through subsidiary Hunt Midwest Real Estate Development Inc. The effort today boasts nearly 5,000 acres of commercial, retail, industrial and residential projects completed or under way.

The company branched into residential development in 1993 and today counts more than 4,200 platted lots in 11 ongoing and four completed master-planned communities across the Kansas City area.

SubTropolis, near Interstate 435 at Missouri 210, is the world’s largest underground business complex. More than 4.7 million square feet of space is leased to nearly 50 companies, including a film-storage business that safeguards original copies of “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz” and other classics.

The caves also house the largest foreign trade zone under one roof in the world. The trade zone has been a key selling point in recent years in the region’s ongoing effort to establish Kansas City as a North American freight transit and warehouse hub.

Mining subsidiary Hunt Midwest Mining Inc. merged two years ago with Martin Marietta Materials to form a new company called Hunt Martin Materials LLC to produce and market crushed limestone throughout the region.

Lamar Hunt’s KC businesses

Although best known as owner of the Chiefs, Lamar Hunt had a much wider impact on the Kansas City area.

•Thousands of Kansas Citians live and work in Hunt Midwest developments.

•Hunt’s real estate subsidiary controls nearly 5,000 acres of surface and underground development, including the 1,200-acre SubTropolis underground industrial park that houses nearly 50 local, national and international businesses with more than 1,300 employees.

•Business and commercial parks include Hunt Midwest Business Center and Hunt Midwest Commerce Center, both at I-435 and Parvin Road; the Highway 210 Business Center at Missouri 210 and Ameristar Drive; Northglen Village at Missouri 152 and North Brighton Avenue; and Northgate Village at Burlington and 32nd streets in North Kansas City.

•Northland residential developments include Bennington Park, Benson Place, Brighton Woods, Brighton Woods North, Fox Creek, Northgate Village, Running Horse, Staley Hills, Steeple Oaks, Woodneath Farms, Communities of North Brook and the Fairways. Projects in the Lee’s Summit and Raymore area include Bridlewood at Longview, Eagle Creek and Timber Trails.

To reach Rick Alm, call (816) 234-4785 or send e-mail to