American Royal could move to KS

Posted at 10:14 AM, Feb 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-16 21:20:30-05

A new hotel, children's museum and 5,000-seat hockey arena could be part of a project designed to lure the annual American Royal horse and livestock exhibition to the Kansas side of the Kansas City metropolitan area from Missouri.

A report prepared by the Kansas Department of Commerce and obtained by The Associated Press said the proposed development in Wyandotte County "is assumed" to include those projects and 12 other elements. The report also describes retail stores, restaurants and outdoor farming exhibits for children.

But the project's future is uncertain.

Kansas legislators have included a provision in budget legislation to block Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's administration from using a special economic development program to pay for the proposal. Under the program, the department authorizes bonds for such projects, and sales tax revenues collected in a development district pay off the debt within 20 years.

Legislators in both parties said Kansas would give up $42 million a year in sales tax revenues to finance the American Royal development — with the state struggling to balance its budget. A few lawmakers were surprised to learn that the project included a hotel, a children's museum — or an arena for a team in a hockey league that grooms young players for college and professional play.

"God, we're dead broke," said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat. "This is beginning to border on financial malpractice."

Department of Commerce officials, including Secretary Antonio Soave, were scheduled to appear Tuesday morning before the Senate Commerce Committee to give an annual report on the bonding program. The panel includes two vocal critics of the American Royal development, Republican Sens. Jim Denning, of Overland Park, and Jeff Melcher, of Leawood.

The report obtained by The AP doesn't list a total potential cost for the American Royal development. So-called STAR bonds have been used to finance projects throughout the state, but most notably in the Kansas City area.

With state approval, Wyandotte County issued $450 million in STAR bonds starting in 2001 to build Kansas Speedway and develop the area into a thriving entertainment and retail shopping district that now includes Major League Soccer and minor league baseball stadiums. The bonds will be paid off early, by the end of this year — giving the state an opportunity to expand the development district to the west and finance the American Royal project.

The Commerce Department can't legally discuss the details of potential projects, said spokeswoman Nicole Randall.

"We're always looking for ways to bring economic development to the state," she said.

The American Royal, founded in 1899, runs nearly 11 weeks from early September into the week of Thanksgiving. It includes a parade, horse and livestock shows and a national barbecue competition. Its website says it draws more than 270,000 visitors a year, and the Kansas Department of Commerce projects attendance growing to 350,000 four years after a move.

American Royals officials didn't immediately respond to a request comment.

The report from the Department of Commerce anticipates the new, 5,000-seat arena being used both for hockey and agricultural events. The report also said the children's museum would draw at least 100,000 visitors a year and the hotel could have 140 rooms.

Mike Taylor, a spokesman for Wyandotte County, said the details of the development project have fluctuated since discussions began six months ago.

"It is not Wyandotte County's project," Taylor said of the American Royal development. "It is a project the state and the American Royal approached us about."