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Future of venerable Kemper Arena uncertain

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — With the American Royal Rodeo prepared to move from the Kemper Arena to the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City, many are wondering what will become of the aging arena in the city’s West Bottoms.

City officials say they are considering several options, ranging from demolishing it, continuing current operations or finding an alternate use, The Kansas City Star reported.

“I think we should find an alternate use for Kemper, and if we can’t, we need to consider razing it,” said City Councilman Ed Ford.

No immediate action is required because revenues from the Sprint Center cover Kemper’s costs, said Oscar McGaskey, Kansas City’s director of convention and entertainment centers. However, it cost the city $1 million to operate Kemper this year, while the arena brought in about $253,000 in revenue. And the city still owes $10 million in debt on Kemper, which will cost taxpayers $2.2 million each year until it is paid off in 2016, McGaskey said.

Revenues and the number of events held at the arena have declined steadily since the Sprint Center opened in October 2007.

This year, 23 events are planned for Kemper, which continues a slide from 54 events in 2006 and 39 in 2007.

It’s unlikely the arena will be torn down soon, mostly because the city has a 50-year contract with the American Royal that requires it to set aside 20 days a year for Royal events at Kemper.

The American Royal has only three events planned at Kemper this year. Two of those could probably easily relocate to Sprint or the American Royal facilities, said American Royal President Bob Petersen. But the third event, a saddlebred horse show — the third largest American Royal earner in gross revenue — would probably leave Kansas City if Kemper was not available.

The rodeo will move to the Sprint Center next year because it sold only 3,000 to 4,000 tickets at Kemper and is expected to sell 12,000 at the Sprint Center.

McGaskey said the city and the American Royal have not discussed renegotiating the current contract.

Anschutz Entertainment Group manages both Kemper and the Sprint Center, with the Kemper contract ending in December 2012.

McGaskey said AEG is not to blame for the losses at Kemper, which has never made money for the city and was just breaking even before the Sprint Center opened.

Brenda Tinnen, general manager with AEG, said her company will bid next year to continue operating Kemper. She said AEG currently has no plans to manage the arena differently.

“Kemper definitely has its purpose and place in the market,” said AEG representative Shani Tate. “The facility does have life.”

Others say the most likely future for Kemper is finding another use. Suggestions have included a skating rink, indoor soccer facility, megachurch or outdoor amphitheater. So far, those are only suggestions and no one has moved to make any of them a reality.

City officials said Kemper’s location is not the problem.

“The West Bottoms is becoming the next hot area of the city,” said Councilwoman Jan Marcason of the fourth district, which covers the West Bottoms area. “There is a lot of economic interest, and it’s becoming a real desirable place.”

Mayor Sly James said in a statement that the city will continue to look for uses for both arenas.

“They are a package, have different uses and draws,” James said. “While the Royal will bring its rodeo and concert series to the Sprint Center, Kemper will continue to be the workhorse of the nation’s oldest livestock show. Together they give us options.”

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