KANSAS CITY, Kan. – One of Kansas City’s most venerable cultural institutions, the annual American Royal horse and livestock exhibition, is moving to Kansas from Missouri, officials announced Tuesday.
Their announcement culminates months of work by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Department of Commerce to lure the 117-year-old exhibition across the state line.
The state and American Royal officials are planning on a $160 million development near the Kansas Speedway, with an exposition centre and two arenas — one with 5,000 to 8,000 seats, the other with a couple thousand for smaller events. Kansas is committing to authorizing $80 million in bonds to be paid off with sales tax revenues collected in the area, Brownback said, and officials hope the development will attract a new hotel.
“This is an important growth opportunity for both the Royal and the region,” Brownback said during a news conference at the speedway in west Wyandotte County. “It’s up to us to claim this mantle and move it forward.”
The effort previously generated some controversy, as some Kansas legislators questioned whether it came with a potential cost to the cash-strapped state. Sales tax revenues used to back bonds for such a project would not flow to the state as it wrestles with budget problems.
Kansas state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said she’s wary of issuing additional bonds. While she acknowledged some excitement that Wyandotte County was attracting a big project and new jobs, she said it doesn’t give her much satisfaction knowing those things come at neighbouring Missouri’s expense.
“It’s sort of more of the same of just stealing from Missouri rather than trying to grow that region altogether,” said Kelly, who serves on the Senate budget committee.
The American Royal says its exhibition draws nearly 270,000 people a year. Many of them come for a national barbecue contest, and this year’s competition — set to begin Wednesday, with 568 teams and an expected turnout of 50,000 people — already has moved to the speedway.
The show has played such an important role in Kansas City, Missouri, that after the city was awarded a major league baseball team for the 1969 season, the name “Royals” was chosen from among thousands of suggestions submitted by fans. The winning entry cited the popularity of the American Royal and the city’s pre-eminent position in the livestock industry.
The American Royal spent several years trying to persuade leaders in Kansas City, Missouri, to tear down the aging Kemper Arena, the former home of the event, and replace it with a smaller venue. But officials eventually dropped the effort following criticism from historic preservationists and other groups who want the 42-year-old arena to be saved.
In 2011, the American Royal Rodeo was held in the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City before moving back to Hale Arena, a smaller building near Kemper Arena in the city’s West Bottoms.
Kansas state Sen. Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said the new project appears to be far more acceptable than the plans for an American Royal development that he and other lawmakers criticized earlier this year. Denning said it’s still not clear to him how the new development would generate the sales tax revenues needed to pay off the bonds.
“The project’s been scaled way back,” he said.
A spokesman for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, had no comment on the announcement. In Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Sly James said he wished the Royal well.
“We can absolutely keep our fond memories of the American Royal alive, while honouring our past and preparing for our next chapter as an entrepreneurial, high tech and innovative community of the future,” James said.
A report earlier this year by the Kansas Department of Commerce envisioned a Kansas-based American Royal as part of a major development near the speedway that would include a new hotel, a children’s museum and a 5,000-seat arena that could be used for hockey.
Angie Stanland, chairwoman of the Royal’s board of directors, said it hopes to break ground on the development early next year. She said it could take two years to complete.
“We are designing as we speak,” Stanland said.
While some of the events, including livestock competitions, are underway now at the Missouri site, it wasn’t immediately clear whether the Royal would stay there while awaiting the Kansas venue to be built.
The speedway is part of a thriving entertainment and retail shopping district that includes Major League Soccer and minor-league baseball stadiums — much of which Brownback credited Tuesday as being financed with bonds some lawmakers have criticized. With state approval, Wyandotte County issued $450 million in bonds starting in 2001 to build the speedway and develop the area, with the bonds backed by sales tax revenues.
“Do you think any of this would be here without (those) bonds? And I think the answer is no,” Brownback said.
The speedway-related bonds will be paid off early, by the end of this year. Some legislators wanted to ensure that sales tax revenues would begin flowing to the state, rather than having them back bonds for a new project.
Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since Republican legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 to stimulate the economy. The announcement about the American Royal came two weeks before the Nov. 8 election, with Brownback’s allies facing a political backlash over the budget as they seek re-election to the Legislature.
Hanna reported from Topeka, Kansas.