Some believe it would be a shame to demolish K.C.'s Kemper Arena

Sunday, January 20, 2013

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A little more than a year after the American Royal board proposed tearing down Kemper Arena and replacing it with a 5,000-seat facility geared to year-round agricultural events and other festivals, support is growing to retain the iconic Kansas City facility.

Architects, preservationists and some longtime American Royal supporters believe it would be a shame to demolish a 38-year-old arena.

"The first response is that they wanted to tear down an event space to build another event space. That cannot be an efficient use of a community asset," said Erik Heitman, an architect with BNIM and chairman of the Kansas City Historic Preservation Commission.

Kemper Arena -- built in 1974 and named after banker Crosby Kemper Sr., who put more than $3 million of his own money toward the project -- has hosted professional basketball and hockey teams and top bands.

A portion of its roof collapsed during an intense storm in 1979, three years after the building hosted the Republican National Convention.

In October 2011, American Royal's board announced its plans to replace the arena with an equestrian center for year-round livestock, horse and trade shows, plus barbecue and other festivals.

Kemper Jr. and his son, Mariner Kemper, pledged to try to raise $10 million in private dollars but said they would also need tens of millions of dollars from Kansas City.

American Royal and the city's finance department have met several times since the Kempers floated their idea, but no plans have been announced.

"Progress was made, but there's still a significant financing gap," said mayoral spokesman Danny Rotert.

City Manager Troy Schulte said he's open to all options that could help spark an economic revival in the city's West Bottoms, but he added the key is to find something that honors the American Royal's long-term lease.

"The American Royal has veto rights in that facility," he said.

Brant Laue, American Royal board chairman, said the not-for-profit considered renovation options for the arena, but concluded a new building would be better.

The unique building was designed by architect Helmut Jahn, who went on to design the Sony Center in Berlin, the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago and the European Union headquarters in Brussels.

Jahn said Kansas City should carefully consider the future of the arena, which was built for $23.5 million.

"I think a building becomes important in a city, not only in terms of its architecture but how it enriches the civic life. That's a landmark, like Bartle Hall," he said.

Sarah Rowland, who has been active in the American Royal's horse show for 25 years and whose husband, Landon, is on the agricultural organization's board, agreed with Heitman's preservation efforts.

"There does seem to be a fair amount of support for the notion that Kemper is a viable structure and could be employed in a useful, gainful manner for a number of years into the future," she said.

Steve Foutch, managing directors of Foutch Brothers, a Kansas City development firm, has proposed to city officials buying Kemper Arena and converting into a mecca for teens sports.

While Foutch, Heitman and Rowland said they respect the American Royal's intentions, they think the public should be involved in such a monumental decision.

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