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Arena's road to opening a bumpy one

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010, at 12:05 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010, at 7:38 a.m.

It was never going to happen.

The idea that a large sports and entertainment arena should be built in downtown Wichita was kicked around for decades and usually ended up bloodied and beaten, more dead than alive.

But after two failed attempts, a heated sales tax campaign, countless surveys and public meetings, a lot of hustle by planners and a lot of complaints by opponents, a 15,000-seat arena has thrust its curvilinear glass profile into Wichita's skyline.

The Intrust Bank Arena held its grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday.

Its cost now is estimated at $196 million, said Ron Holt, assistant manager for Sedgwick County, which owns the arena.

Final bills for infrastructure and parking aren't in yet, and pre-opening costs haven't been determined. A final number is expected by the time the citizen sales tax oversight committee meets in early February to complete its accounting, Holt said.

The county had predicted a $184.5 million price tag in 2004, when a countywide vote approved the 30-month, one-cent sales tax to pay for the arena.

"But it was always going to be tied to what the sales tax would raise," Holt said.

That tax, in effect from July 1, 2005 to Dec. 31, 2007, ended up raising $206.5 million, leaving about $10.5 million for an operation and maintenance reserve fund required by the ballot issue, Holt said.

Impact of new arena

The road to Intrust Bank Arena went through Levitt Arena at Wichita State University.

Wichita businessman George Fahnestock said he went to WSU Athletics Director Bill Belknap and then-president Gene Hughes in spring 1998 and asked what was needed to make the aging Shocker basketball facility a first-class venue that would allow the Shockers to compete on a national level.

"They said, 'Before we can do anything, we need to bring resolution to the downtown arena,' " Fahnestock said. "I said, 'Maybe I can help with that.' "

He had no idea it would take a decade to do that.

Fahnestock made a downtown arena study a priority when he became chairman of the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission's board in 1999. The study was to determine whether, and how, the Kansas Coliseum and Levitt Arena would co- exist with a new arena.

The outlook wasn't promising. The only previous time the city had considered a downtown arena seriously was 1993, when voters rejected a municipal sales tax to finance a $61 million, 18,000-seat complex on 20 acres bounded by Kellogg, Waterman, Topeka and the railroad tracks east of St. Francis.

But the topic continued to simmer as civic leaders sought ways to revitalize the city's core.

Four years after the vote, in December 1997, a study by KPMG Peat Marwick of St. Petersburg, Fla., found that the Wichita area wasn't big enough to support a new downtown arena without harming the Coliseum and Levitt Arena.

Those findings led to discussions of a cooperative venture to phase in a new arena and find a way to coordinate events among all the facilities.

WSU, once a potential basketball tenant of a downtown arena, eventually decided to renovate Levitt Arena into Koch Arena and keep its basketball games on campus.

Coliseum renovation

Eventually, Fahnestock and other community leaders believed that the city was more prepared for a downtown arena than it was in 1993. They thought construction of the Hyatt Regency hotel, an ice rink and Exploration Place had helped pave the way.

In 2002, the sports commission came up a plan to build the Wichita DynaPlex, a 17,000-seat, $140 million arena that would require a voter-approved city sales tax.

After a public campaign, that plan was shelved six weeks before an August election. Backers decided the timing wasn't right. The city had been hit by aircraft layoffs and taxpayers already faced paying for a school bond issue.

Backers vowed not to give up on the idea, but the downtown arena concept appeared dead again.

It didn't help that the county felt pressure to move ahead with planned improvements to the Kansas Coliseum. As part of a settlement of an Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit, it was legally bound to improve accessibility to the building. It had put off repairs for more than two years while a downtown arena appeared possible.

In 2003, the county approved a $55 million plan to renovate the Coliseum and pavilions, hired an architect, and seemed to effectively end its involvement in a downtown arena.

"We went forward with plans to renovate, but we also said if a viable downtown arena project came along, we'd pull back," Holt said.

A new plan

It was crunch time for downtown-arena supporters who thought it a mistake to spend money renovating a facility that was built in 1977 well outside the city.

During a series of meetings with civic and government leaders, then-Wichita Mayor Carlos Mayans gave impetus to a new downtown arena initiative when he declared that the county could own the arena if it put in most of the money.

Asked by the county to submit a plan, Mayans within a few weeks produced a proposal for a $130 million, 15,000-seat facility that required the county to raise property taxes to finance $71 million of the total.

That didn't go over well with county commissioners, who already were trying to trim the budget without raising property taxes.

They directed County Manager William Buchanan and Holt to create a plan the commission could support.

It was finished in two weeks.

Simplicity was the goal. The plan called for a $141.5 million, 15,000-seat arena financed by a short-term countywide sales tax, subject to voter approval.

The city signed off on it. With both governments united behind the plan, arena backers thought they had their best chance to get an arena built.

But they had to sell the plan to a public that felt it had been down that road before, never successfully.

They held public meetings to inform voters about the arena and get feedback on the length and amount of the sales tax.

Based on that input, the county settled on a one-cent sales tax increase for 30 months and revised its estimated cost to $184.5 million.

The ballot question said money from the tax would go to build the arena and related infrastructure and parking, to renovate the pavilions at the Kansas Coliseum and to establish an operating and maintenance reserve fund.

Voters approve arena

Arena backers launched a public relations campaign to get the tax passed. Their most visible opponent was Karl Peterjohn, then head of the Kansas Taxpayers Network and now a county commissioner.

Peterjohn said voters were being asked to approve a tax without knowing where the arena would be located.

"I thought people would say, 'Wait a sec. We're going to spend $184.5 million and put it exactly where?' That question never got answered," he said.

Peterjohn also contended that county didn't have authority to raise the sales tax. It would have to go to the Kansas Legislature to get a law that would retroactively make it valid.

Opponents also didn't think there would be enough parking downtown and didn't believe claims that the arena would benefit downtown development.

But, far outspent by the pro-arena campaign, the anti-arena forces watched as the arena tax passed by 5,000 votes.

Peterjohn appreciates the irony that the leader of the arena opposition now sits on the County Commission.

"The vote in 2004 is history, and we need to make this facility work as best we can for all the citizens of Sedgwick County," he said.

Budget, costs

The original $184.5 million forecast for the total budget rose to $201 million and then $205.5 million as sales tax collections came in higher than expected. The tax finally produced $206.5 million.

The arena's construction cost was estimated in 2004 at $77 million, but ended up nearly twice that, $142.5 million, requiring the county to make cuts in the parking and reserve funds to make the project fit the budget.

Holt said the construction forecast was made before the arena's location and design were determined.

"We had to make a general estimate about what a 15,000-seat arena in downtown Wichita might cost," he said. "The estimates based on the original budgets were just that. We tried to put caveats that this was a real broad estimate."

The county originally budgeted $9.1 million for the renovation of the Kansas Coliseum pavilions, which were closed from May to September 2007 for the work. It ended up spending $6.5 million, Holt said.

Additional work is being considered, but the county has to wait until the future of the Coliseum is decided, Holt said.

Four sites for the arena were proposed. After citizen input, the county chose the site between William on the north, Waterman on the south, the railroad corridor on the east, and Emporia on the west.

Citizens also helped choose the design that produced the swept-glass, south-facing facade and the heavily bricked north side, which blends with the look of Old Town.

Parking plans

The arena's parking plan evolved slowly through years of debate in the community.

The county offered a large garage as an early possibility, but that plan was shelved when consultants said enough parking spaces already existed in the area to accommodate most events.

"In the initial discussions, we talked about building parking garages if they're warranted," Holt said. "A lot of people forget there was in 'if' in there.

"It became very clear looking at other communities, and looking at downtown development efforts that you do not want to build a parking garage, especially a huge one, tied to the arena because then you don't get the downtown development."

Peterjohn said he still has doubts about the parking, and he probably isn't the only one.

The first big test of the parking plan will come next Saturday, when country singer Brad Paisley performs.

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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