Sedgwick County commissioners weighed in with mixed opinions Wednesday on Intrust Bank Arena’s $2 million request to upgrade its northern entrance.
Commissioner Tim Norton said the county did not anticipate the “huge shift” of guests increasingly using the entrance closest to the Old Town area near Douglas.
“That’s good news: that people are coming out of Old Town. That was part of the expansion of downtown,” Norton said. “Although it will probably cause some consternation about deciding to spend that amount of money, I think it’s good news that our arena is flourishing, the downtown is growing.”
“We’ve made a lot of decisions on bad news over the years,” he said. “It’s nice to make decisions on good news.”
The $2 million capital improvement project would add more stairs, doorways and lobby and plaza space to Entrance C, the arena’s northern entrance closest to Old Town, before the 2018 NCAA tournament.
But some commissioners said they were worried about the project drawing down the arena’s operating and maintenance reserves from the sales taxes that helped pay for it a decade ago. The reserve funds stood at $12.4 million in June.
Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said he was struggling with it, noting a 20 percent decline in those reserves in the arena’s first six years.
“If we use that all up, then we’re going to have to come up with some other funding source to make that happen,” Peterjohn said. “If we put a couple million into doing the capital improvement you all have recommended, that would accelerate that process, maybe move us four or five years further and faster down that road.”
Peterjohn said the $2 million project would be a calculated risk. He questioned whether it would improve the arena’s outlook for generating revenue.
“It’s a very impressive facility and obviously it’s something that I certainly want to try and keep this as an important asset,” Peterjohn said. “On the other side of it, I’d hate to see property tax dollars have to be used for that facility going forward.”
“That’s the destination that’s inevitable if we can’t keep the revenue and expenditures balanced,” Peterjohn said.
Commissioner Dave Unruh said they needed to remember that the arena belonged to Sedgwick County residents.
“That reserve fund belongs to the citizens of Sedgwick County and we need to superintend it in such a way that they continue to have a great fan experience and that it’s convenient and useful and something they’re proud of,” Unruh said.
Chairman Jim Howell called the project an important enhancement that would have been originally included had the county known about the future patterns of guests visiting the arena.
“The visitor experience is not ideal right now,” Howell said after the meeting. “This particular enhancement is necessary … I think this reflects the fact that our downtown culture has changed.”
But Howell said he would also be concerned if the funds continued to “dwindle slowly.”
The $2 million project is the biggest part of $3.4 million in arena improvement requests for 2017. Sedgwick County funds improvements at the county-owned arena. It’s unclear when commissioners will vote on the requests.
Assistant County Manager Ron Holt said the county’s 20-year asset replacement plan at the arena will help it manage the use of the reserve fund.
“We can look at projects, move them in, move them out and make sure that we’re spending that O&M (operating and maintenance) reserve fund in a very judicious fashion,” Holt said.
Arena manager A.J. Boleski said the project would help provide a better experience for arena visitors, particularly for the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
“This improvement is something that we need to do now in time for the tournament but also for the future,” Boleski said. “The tournament is a good time for us to shine as a facility.”
“I do realize it’s a good amount of money. We don’t take that reserve fund for granted,” he said. “We understand that there are times when the answer is no.”
“However, we believe that this one the answer should be yes on the north entrance.”