March 16, 2012

NIAR could test 737s, 787s on floor of former Kansas Coliseum

By the end of the year, the main act at the former Kansas Coliseum could be tests on a Boeing 737.

By the end of the year, the main act at the former Kansas Coliseum could be tests on a Boeing 737.

John Tomblin sounded downright giddy Friday to talk about all the possibilities of the National Institute for Aviation Research’s expansion to Britt Brown Arena.

The remodeled arena will house NIAR’s Aircraft Structural Testing and Evaluation Center, most of which is now situated at Hawker Beechcraft, and will allow the institute to work with larger aircraft.

“The Hawker facility is limited to the size of jet we can get in there,” Tomblin said. “The Hawker 4000 is about as big as we can get in there now. At the Coliseum, I can fit a Boeing 737 or 787, all the way down to a business jet. This greatly expands our testing capability.”

The Eagle first reported in October that Wichita developer Johnny Stevens wanted to buy Britt Brown Arena to lease to NIAR, which is based out of Wichita State University. Stevens paid Sedgwick County $1.5 million for Britt Brown and the rest of the Kansas Coliseum complex. Stevens will operate the pavilions, popular for horse and dog shows, livestock events, flea markets and swap meets.

Stevens and NIAR signed a 10-year lease agreement this week for Britt Brown. It includes three five-year options to renew.

Stevens is kicking in $4 million to remodel the arena, and NIAR is putting up $2 million.

NIAR got a reduced per-square-foot lease rate for fronting some of the remodeling costs. NIAR’s remodeling money is very “structural testing specific,” Tomblin said. NIAR will pay Stevens $480,000 a year.

The expansion will give NIAR 100,000 square feet of lab space and 30,000 square feet of office space on two levels. The center will have client observation areas and a 30-by-70-foot hangar door on the south end.

About 80 people will work at the center. Eventually, staff there will grow to about 100. The center will open by the end of the year.

NIAR staff will conduct full-scale structural testing of parts such as fuselage sections, cockpits, wings and stabilizers. A news release from NIAR noted that testing will occur on the arena floor where Garth Brooks once sold out shows.

The center also will house NIAR’s Aging Aircraft Lab and the Metrology Lab. NIAR’s environmental test labs will stay at Hawker Beechcraft for now. A part of NIAR’s Composite and Advanced Materials Lab also will be situated at the former Coliseum.

Because of military testing, the center will be restricted to clients and scheduled guests and not open to the public. Parking at the center will be separate from the Kansas Pavilions.

Keith Pickus, interim provost at Wichita State, said the expansion is a “fabulous opportunity for Wichita State and the community.”

He said the move preserves the community’s investment in the Coliseum.

“We couldn’t be happier,” Pickus said.

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