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Former Kansas Coliseum being transformed into NIAR testing center

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, at 9:42 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, at 10:55 p.m.

John Tomblin stood where fans once clapped for rockers Kiss and looked out on the main floor of the former Britt Brown Arena at the Kansas Coliseum complex.

A section of what once was seating will soon become a control room for the Aircraft Structural Testing and Evaluation Center, an expansion of the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University.

He pointed to where a scoreboard once hung and talked about how he can’t wait to drop a fuselage from there.

Tomblin, the executive director of NIAR, gave a tour Wednesday of the arena-turned-aviation-center, where NIAR will conduct full-scale structural testing. Its first client will be Bombardier’s Learjet 85.

Much work has gone on inside the building since Wichita developer and oilman Johnny Stevens bought the Coliseum complex from Sedgwick County last year for $1.5 million. He convinced Tomblin that it could provide him the space he needed to test aircraft as big as Boeing 737s and 787s.

Gone are the concession stands. Gone are the ticket booths. Gone are many of the seats where people went to concerts, hockey and soccer games, the circus and monster truck shows.

The whole thing started with a lunch between Stevens and Tomblin. Stevens had looked at the Coliseum complex because it was for sale.

“I knew that John was looking for more space,” Stevens said.

Tomblin had looked at the arena years before but didn’t think the site could fit NIAR’s needs. Stevens convinced him it would, with its tall ceilings and 265-foot clear span.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh came along for the tour Wednesday and said he was relieved the deal came together.

The future of the Coliseum complex had been in limbo since Intrust Bank Arena opened in January 2010. Britt Brown Arena was not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the county turned down proposals from developers for an entertainment and retail venue, and a rodeo resort at the site.

“This is much better than warehouse space,” Unruh said. “This is smart people building something.”

Stevens said he has put $4 million into remodeling the arena, including replacing a leaky roof. NIAR has spent another $2 million on renovations specific for its needs and will spend $4 million on equipment.

The Eagle first reported in March that Stevens and NIAR had signed a 10-year lease agreement. It includes three five-year options to renew. NIAR will pay $480,000 a year for the space.

The south end of the former arena has been opened up for a 70-feet-wide and 30-feet-tall hangar door made by a company called, in fact, Megadoor. Through that $200,000 door, made of a translucent fabric and designed in an accordion style, will come pieces of airplanes – wings, fuselages and vertical and horizontal tails. They will come by truck and train and undergo rigorous structural testing.

“We’ll put two to three lifetimes on the aircraft,” Tomblin said of the Learjet 85.

It was obvious Wednesday that Tomblin can’t wait to get his hands on the center’s first plane. Who else would get so excited about a trench cut from the mechanical room to both sides of what was once the arena’s hockey rink? It will house the stainless-steel hydraulic lines and 5-inch air lines required to test planes.

“That’s the heart, and this is the nerve system,” Tomblin said, pointing from the mechanical room, which houses the hydraulic pumps, back to the trench.

New chillers that have been installed will cool the pumps. The center has all new electrical work and plumbing.

The trusses that used to hold lighting equipment for concerts and circuses each can hold 33,000 pounds, which is perfect for testing planes.

Tomblin said work at the center will begin within a month on the floor of the former arena. The offices are scheduled to open the first week of January.

The center will have a perimeter fence. Because of military testing, the center will be restricted to clients and scheduled guests and will not be open to the public. A new parking lot will be separate from that of the Kansas Pavilions, which Stevens continues to operate.

About 80 NIAR staff will work at the center when it opens. Tomblin said he will add another 20 jobs by 2014 and another 10 by 2015.

He said he can look that far out because testing is a long process.

“It’s not a date. It’s a marriage,” he said.

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com.

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