A tough civic call: What to do with Kemper Arena


A recommendation on Kemper Arena’s future will not be coming soon.

The issues involved are financial, complex and awash in Kansas City history – things like the need to expand the American Royal Barbecue contest, whether Kemper is a historic building and the history of the American Royal itself – which the Royals baseball team is named after.

On Thursday, Councilman Ed Ford, the chair of a city council committee studying the Kemper issue, said it is still considering whether to recommend renovation or demolition. One thing for sure, he told the full council. “We know the status quo isn’t working.”

Kerri Tyndall, assistant city manager, reported Kemper and American Royal Association buildings in the West Bottoms run a deficit of  $1.6 million a year. They are also aging and the city has $24 million in capital improvement obligations under its contract with the American Royal Association.

Few cities have two arenas, and Kemper has been used little since the Sprint Center opened in 2007. Kemper is now too big for the American Royal, which proposes demolishing it, replacing it with a smaller building and renovating the other Royal structures.

But then the Foutch Brothers, Kansas City developers, proposed making Kemper into a center for youth sports. The Royal could still build its smaller building, the developer says.

Tyndall on Thursday provided a quick summary of the two plans. The American Royal, a fixture in the West  Bottoms since the late 1800s, proposes $5 million for Kemper demolition, $5 million for improvements to its other facilities and $50 million for a new and smaller building.It also says it could provide more youth sports space than the competing Foutch proposal.

About $30 million for the association plan would come from the city, along with $1 million a year in city subsidy. The rest would come from state or private sources.

The association has said that would allow it to vastly expand the barbecue contest, which had to turn away 40 contestants from lack of space. If Kemper stays up, and a smaller Royal building still gets built, the association contends it would have to cut barbecue space by 25 percent.

Foutch Brothers has disputed that in its plan for a $22 million renovation of Kemper. It asks only 10 years of 100 percent city tax abatement and that the city sell Kemper to them for $1. The other money would come from state tax credits and funding and other sources.

As for the barbecue space issue, Councilman John Sharp said, “I hate to see them make a decision on 365 days a year based on three days a year.”

A person associated with Foutch Brothers has filed for national historic designation for Kemper, which is expected to be decided by year’s end.

Last week, the Historic Kansas City Foundation sent notice asking people to sign a petition that supports saving the 40-year-old arena designed by architect Helmut Jahn. “Opened in 1974, the building captured a civic vision in a bold design,” the foundation said. “It is a signature work of a world famous and distinguished architect in the early moments of his career, and was the site of many significant events including a national political convention.”

And on Thursday, Tyndall noted the long history of the American Royal in the West Bottoms and that the Royals are named after it.

Many in Kansas City have forgotten that but a front-page article in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal lays out the history. The name intended to honor the city’s role as a leading stocker and feeder market for cattle came from a 1968 contest to name the team.

Later the city wanted to play down its cattle history and be a glamour city, the journal reported. “COWTOWN NO MORE,” blurted headlines for stories planted by a New York public relations firm.

No matter what the eventual outcome of Kemper, everyone Thursday seemed united on one thing.

“Go Royals,” Tyndall shouted.

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