Crowd endorses Kemper Arena redevelopment as destination sports hub

BY LYNN HORSLEY
lhorsley@kcstar.com

More than 100 people turned out Wednesday night to tour Kemper Arena, and many in the crowd endorsed Foutch Brothers’ proposal to convert the mothballed public building into a regional hub for amateur youth and adult sports.

“I am so appreciative of this,” Northland resident Louise Jones said of the city’s recommendation that Foutch Brothers be allowed to acquire and repurpose the West Bottoms relic.

The plan is far from a done deal, and many financial details still must fall into place, acknowledged Steve Foutch, managing partner of the development company that specializes in historic renovations. But City Council members said they were hopeful this is the right solution for Kemper Arena, which as recently as last year seemed destined for the wrecking ball.

“This is one important step closer to the preservation of this historic local landmark,” said Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, a member of the selection committee that chose Foutch over Wichita-based Steven Brothers Sports Management Co.

If all goes as hoped, the new Foutch facility could be redeveloped by the end of 2017 at an estimated cost of $25 million to $30 million. The project would add a second floor andmore than double the arena’s court space for indoor soccer, basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, dance, fitness, a multilane running and bicycling track, and numerous other sports purposes.

“We want to make it a destination,” said Foutch, adding that he expects 1,000 daily visitors during the week and 3,000 to 5,000 visitors for weekend sports tournaments. That could translate into 500,000 visitors in the first year of operation, 2018.

West Bottoms residents and businesses, sports advocates and historic preservationists are excited about the potential to bring more crowds and activity not only to Kemper Arena but also to the revitalizing West Bottoms neighborhood.

Still, significant hurdles remain. Although Foutch has passionate investors, he acknowledges that about one-third of the financing is contingent on historic tax credits, which requires Kemper’s placement on the National Register of Historic Places. He said that process has cleared the state level, and he hopes for federal approval soon.

The plan also anticipates 100 percent property tax abatement for 10 years. That would not be a big impact to local taxing jurisdictions, since Kemper as a city-owned building has paid no taxes.

The city, which has just paid off the last Kemper Arena bonds, is eager to transfer the building to a private owner by late September, thus relieving taxpayers of the $1 million annual maintenance cost. Kemper has been a redundant and little-used venue since the Sprint Center opened in 2007.