A History of Kansas City’s Convention Pursuits
Consultant suggests convention-center expansion. Expansion disappoints. Consultant suggests 1,000-room hotel. No one questions consultant about previous suggestion. Instead, city officials gleefully accept hotel recommendation and hire the consultant to conduct further study.
The above was taken from a Pitch piece in May 2010, and it is certainly as true today as it was then. Actually, it explains Kansas City’s long 46-year dance of expanding convention space and increasing hotel rooms. Consider the following timeline:
• 1969: A number of bonds were put before voters, among them a $23 million bond for a new exhibit hall. A front-page Kansas City Star editorial claimed (12/15/69), “The prime consideration at the polls tomorrow is whether Kansas City is to grow or retrench in the 1970s.” All the bonds failed to get the required supermajority.
• 1971: Undaunted, the City Council developed a plan to fund a convention center through bonds in a way that avoided the two-thirds approval necessary in 1969. The Star again endorsed the plan, editorializing (12/16/73), “Tuesday can be a great turning point for Kansas City.” The bonds were approved, and the Bartle Hall Convention Center was completed in 1976.
• 1986-89: Consultants told city leaders that in order to support the convention center Kansas City needed a new hotel. The Vista International Hotel opened in 1985, but it quickly ran into trouble. According to The Pitch:
Called the “Miracle on 12th Street,” the 22-story hotel was expected to revive the city’s dying center. But within 18 months, its owners were contemplating bankruptcy. The building was damned ugly, too. Donald Hoffman, the Star‘s architecture critic, called the hotel “a public embarrassment” when it opened.
• The hotel changed management in 1987, and Marriott bought it in 1988.
• 1990: Again wanting to capture more convention business, a campaign launched to increase taxes to expand Bartle Hall. A column in the Star by H. Marshall Chatfield, the then-chairman of the Chamber of Commerce urged a Yes vote and fretted (1/31/90),
[W]ithout an expanded Bartle Hall, we will be able to accommodate fewer shows—and we will lose dollars we could have gained.
Yael Abouhalkah went one step further in the Star (2/4/1990),
Nothing in this world is 100 percent guaranteed. But the Bartle expansion would create a strong possibility that more development will occur downtown.
The voters approved new taxes for the expansion. The Star reported (2/7/1990) that not only was the city eager to expand Bartle Hall but,
[Developer Whitney] Kerr and H. Ross Perot Jr. pledged to build a trade center office tower if the city expanded Bartle. “We’ll keep pressing Ross on the trade center,” [Mayor Richard L.] Berkley said. “I’m confident it will be built.”
The trade center was never built.
• 1994: The expanded Bartle Hall opened to much fanfare. At a gala event, Carl Hubbell, then-board chairman of the Convention and Visitors Bureau and president of a convention services contracting company, told the Star (undated Star souvenir insert),
This means an opportunity for Kansas City to get back into the national picture as a premier destination city. This is a major step to get us back to where we were in the mid-70s when Bartle first opened. We’re 80 percent there. More hotel rooms will take care of the other 20 percent.
• 1992-1998: Kansas City used Tax Increment Financing to tear down Muehlebach Towers and renovate the Muehlebach Hotel. Marriott reopened the Muehlebach in 1998, but according to The Pitch, “The transaction has cost taxpayers millions because demand for the hotel rooms has fallen short of expectations.”
• 2002: Fearing that the city needed more convention space to attract conventions, leaders decided to expand Bartle Hall with the Grand Ballroom. Voters were urged to support new spending and were again told that without a Yes vote the city would continue to lose convention business, just like 1990. Back to The Pitch:
“This is going to be the economic engine,” said Chuck Eddy, then a city councilman, dreaming of the possibilities in 2004. . . . Former Mayor Kay Barnes took a hammer to a wall, celebrating Bartle’s second expansion in 15 years.
• 2015: Kansas City leaders say the city is losing convention business because it doesn’t have enough hotel rooms. And we’re off to the races again . . .
The desire to subsidize more development never abates; developers’ hunger for public funds is never satiated. Each new project costs taxpayers millions that could go to basic services such as police and infrastructure, libraries and schools, but instead the money funds dreams that never seem to deliver on their promises.