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American Royal looks to the future with new agricultural events center

By Doug Rich

AGRICULTURAL EVENTS CENTER—This is what the west bottoms in Kansas City might look like with a new agricultural events center. The center would replace the aging Kemper Arena that was built in 1974. The new center would include a bowled 5,000 seat arena. (Photo courtesy of American Royal)

The 87th American Royal parade will roll down Grand Boulevard on Oct. 29. This year the parade will be dedicated to thanking the American military for their service. Former Missouri Congressman, Ike Skelton, will be the Grand Marshal.

A full schedule of events follows the annual parade including the American Royal World Series of Barbeque from Oct. 4 to 7, the popular Hunter/Jumper Show from Oct. 16 to 20, and the livestock show, which runs from Oct. 24 to Nov. 4. The PRCA rodeo will be held Sept. 28 to 30 and it will be back in Hale Arena this year.

When you come to the American Royal this year take a look around at the American Royal building and Kemper Arena just across from the parking lot. In a couple of years it could look very different if plans to replace Kemper Arena with a new agricultural events center are completed.

The usability of Kemper Arena has been hotly debated in Kansas City for several years. It is underutilized and it costs the city nearly $1 million a year in maintenance. Since the Sprint Center in downtown was completed Kemper is blacked out most of the year.

"The question is what will it take for this area to be relevant over the next 30 years," Craig Huffhines, vice-chairman of the Livestock/agricultural actives committee at the American Royal and Executive Vice President of the American Hereford Association, said. "The city now agrees that Kemper is not going to be that facility."

Kansas City, the American Royal, and the Kemper family are looking for a way to finance a long term plan to build something that is vibrant, something that can handle multiple show events as well as the world's largest barbeque contest. A facility that can draw traffic to the west bottoms area and have a positive economic impact.

"The city is putting its time and energy behind the new Sprint Center, which is appropriate," Bob Petersen, American Royal president and CEO, said. "Most cities of this size who have gone through this experience find that they can't support two big arenas. That is just a fact of life. So what is to become of the old Kemper Arena?"

No one, including the Kemper family, wants to just watch the old arena slowly deteriorate. Kemper Arena was completed in 1974 and became the city's primary venue for large events and concerts. In addition to the American Royal rodeo and national horse shows, Kemper hosted the 1976 Republican National Convention and the 1988 Final Four.

Big events stopped coming to Kemper in 2007 when the Sprint Center was completed. Livestock events from the American Royal were the only significant use of Kemper Arena after that time, but Kemper was not designed primarily for these types of events.

The vision for the future is to take down Kemper and replace it with a smaller facility with a 5,000 seat bowled arena.

"We don't need the 19,000 seats at Kemper, that was done for Big 12 basketball and concerts, that won't happen down here anymore," Petersen said.

What will happen in the proposed 5,000-seat facility are equestrian and livestock events including summer national shows, team penning, and high school rodeos. Peterson added that it will be a multi-purpose facility that can handle festivals, farm shows and indoor soccer, as well.

"Our task has been how can we pack 20 pounds of sugar into a 10-pound sack," Huffhines said.

The economic impact of the American Royal Complex today is estimated at over $60 million every year. Petersen said this compares to an All-star game or a Big 12 basketball or football championship except that the American Royal is home grown, happens every year and is taken for granted.

Petersen said the proposed new facility could add $15 million to the economic impact of the American Royal complex and the west bottoms area.

"We emphasize with city leaders that investing in a facility down here is not unlike investing in a convention center downtown, except our conventioneers have four legs," Petersen said. "Our exhibitors stay here for several days not like someone who comes in from suburbs, buys $50 concert ticker, drinks some beer, and then goes home. Livestock shows take place over a week and the people are here and it is big deal to the economy."

Right now they have a concept drawing that shows how the area might look after Kemper is taken down and a new building is constructed, but Petersen said they are at least two years away from moving dirt. The American Royal facility, even during the nine months they are out of season, is busy 75 to 89 percent of the time with farms shows, lawn and garden shows, dog shows, and similar events.

"There is a lot of activity here all through the year and we just want to grow all of that," Petersen said.

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by email at

Date: 9-24-2012


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