The Beef With Kemper Arena
Kansas City heavy hitter Tony Botello of Tony’s Kansas City is not exactly a bashful guy. In a recent blog post on his website, he strongly criticized Show-Me for not weighing in on recent events involving the future of Kemper Arena, KC’s 1970s-era multipurpose sports facility. I’m happy to step on the scale.
For those unfamiliar with the Kemper situation, the shortest of the short stories is one of a contract dispute. The American Royal—a century-old nonprofit and scholarship-granting organization focused on agriculture—has a lease with Kansas City to use Kemper but doesn’t think the city has maintained the facility at the level the city promised.
Why the city would neglect Kemper is straightforward enough; the arena has operated in the red for years now, and with the Sprint Center now online downtown, the public face of the city for many concerts and sporting events is no longer in the Bottoms, but on the Bluff. Rather than continue to operate in what it says is a poorly maintained facility, the Royal wants the arena bulldozed and replaced with a new facility that more closely accommodates the Royal’s mission and substantively fulfills the requirements of their lease, which extends amazingly until 2045.
In light of the maintenance requirements and duration of the lease, how much does the Royal say the city is liable for?
Based on the numbers that the American Royal received and validated with the city, [American Royal attorney Chase] Simmons said, the city has $150 million worth of obligations to the organization, on top of the $2.5 million it’s losing on average each year.
In other words, this was a dumb lease by the city for an older facility, whose subsidies we have criticized before. Our longstanding objections to city-ownership of sports stadiums still stands, but it’s accentuated here by what has happened in Kansas City with Kemper Arena. The city has a money pit on its hands and, on top of that, appears to have done a poor job of honoring its remaining lease obligations.
But that doesn’t make the American Royal a victim or a hero in all of this. (Disclosure: I am a Governor with the American Royal.) When the city balked at the Royal’s plan to bulldoze the arena, another group proposed turning Kemper into a multipurpose community sports facility, leveraging . . . historic preservation tax credits. Just two years ago I criticized not only Missouri’s practice of throwing historic preservation incentives around, but I was specifically critical of throwing them at Kemper Arena. The “Foutch Plan” (as it was called) was an alternative, and as a matter of policy it wasn’t “better,” but it did have the positive effect of forcing the Royal to try to make its proposal more attractive.
When it appeared the city may accept the Foutch Plan over the Royal’s, the Royal did something really, really sad—it floated the possibility that it would move out of Kansas City entirely, a nuclear option presumably intended to shock the city back to the Royal’s side. In my view, an American Royal outside the West Bottoms is not the American Royal, and I think most civic leaders would agree with that view. In any case, such a move by the Royal would almost certainly rely on subsidies provided by someone else in the region, probably in Kansas, which would run afoul of Show-Me’s longstanding opposition to border war incentives.
Ultimately the idea of moving didn’t tip the scale to the Royal, but litigation threatened by the organization against Foutch did, and Foutch dropped its proposal. That threat, while effective in pushing out the competing plan, exacerbated the PR nightmare that got rolling after the Royal’s leadership threatened it could move. But that’s where things stand today: The Royal’s plan appears on track to prevail, and Kemper appears on track to be bulldozed.
The most basic reaction we would offer here is that Kansas City shouldn’t have been in the arena business anyway. Moreover, the overly generous terms of the lease goes to show that trusting government to act as a fiduciary for taxpayers in financial matters is hardly ever prudent. We rejected historic preservation tax credits to save Kemper and also reject border war incentives that would subsidize the Royal so that it could possibly move out of Kansas City.
However, we support contract rights, and to the extent that an agreement was made between the Royal and the city, the terms of that agreement have to be substantively performed. Taxpayers deserved a better deal than the one the city made, but they got a lot of bull instead. And like the city’s predicament with the money-hemorrhaging Power & Light District, what taxpayers deserve does not change what taxpayers are on the hook for. Yes, the Royal may eventually “win” the question of what happens to the Kemper Arena property, but that win will have come at a price—for the organization, and for the city.
There has to be a fundamental shift in the political and policy culture of Kansas City if we are to avoid debacles like this in the future, and that means fighting bad ideas before they are implemented and educating taxpayers about better development strategies that will make them, their families, and their communities better off by empowering them, not the government.