October 11, 2011

Developer wants to buy Kansas Coliseum complex, lease part to NIAR

Wichita developer Johnny Stevens wants to buy the Kansas Coliseum complex and lease Britt Brown Arena to the National Institute for Aviation Research.

Wichita developer Johnny Stevens wants to buy the Kansas Coliseum complex and lease Britt Brown Arena to the National Institute for Aviation Research.

Stevens confirmed Tuesday that he has pitched two ideas to Sedgwick County. In one, he would buy the entire 208-acre complex, move NIAR into Britt Brown and turn the Kansas Pavilions into warehouse space. His scaled-back plan is to buy only the arena, which closed early last year, and lease it to NIAR.

The entire complex is valued at $22 million by the county.

A source said Stevens offered $500,000 for the arena and $1.5 million for the entire complex.

Stevens would not confirm those figures but said he had made two offers.

"At this point, I think it just makes an excellent facility for them, but I can't go into more detail at this point," he said.

Stevens, a Wichita commercial developer and oil company executive, worked with Steve Clark on the Waterfront in east Wichita, among other projects.

The county on Tuesday was poised to send out a request for proposals to develop the complex off of I-135 at 85th Street North, but County Manager William Buchanan recommended to commissioners that they should hold off for now, saying there had been some "interesting developments."

Buchanan would not talk about what the developments were, only saying, "we're looking at many options."

John Tomblin, the executive director of NIAR, said there is no deal yet. NIAR is one of the key testing laboratories in the world for airplane parts, avionics and composites. Its engineers and staff test things such as how composite aircraft skins react to lightning and how a new piece of electronic cockpit avionics might affect other electrical devices on the aircraft.

The National Science Foundation recently listed Wichita State second among all U.S. universities in total aeronautical research and development funding.

NIAR's research funding for this fiscal year is just less than $50 million, a $5 million increase over last year.

Tomblin said that he looked at the Coliseum a year ago for a program that he wanted to bring to Wichita. That was a military project, he said.

"We were not selected as the winner of that proposal," he said.

He would not specify how space at the Coliseum would be used if a deal went forward.

"I'm always working on trying to bring new aviation work into Wichita both from the commercial side as well as the military side," he said from the National Business Aviation Association convention in Las Vegas.

Tomblin said there are "very few large buildings around."

NIAR, which has 350 employees and recently restructured, is "exploring all our options," he said. "I am talking with a lot of people."

NIAR is spread out over several locations: Wichita State University, the National Center for Aviation Training, Hawker Beechcraft, and a site in Augusta.

Work that Tomblin hopes to get would require more space.

"We're limited by the size of the building," he said.

The future of the Coliseum complex has been fuzzy for years. Britt Brown Arena, the heart of the complex, closed shortly after Intrust Bank Arena opened last year.

In 2009, commissioners decided not to open negotiations with three groups that pitched ideas for the complex, including a rodeo resort and retail space.

The county has indicated it wants to keep the Pavilions open through at least 2016, but the facilities operate at a loss and require a subsidy. The budgeted subsidy for the complex next year is $584,000.

Money from the 30-month, 1 percent sales tax voters approved to build the Intrust Bank Arena helps keep the Pavilions open.

The Kansas Pavilions are popular for livestock and horse events, dog shows and swap meets. Several groups that use the Pavilions for such events have pressured the county to keep them open.

Commission chairman Dave Unruh would not comment about Stevens' proposal but said, "We have been virtually begging folks to make an offer for two years. We're going to give careful consideration to any offers we get and try to make the best decision regarding that property."

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