The price may not seem right to everybody, given the gap between the $1.5 million sales price and an outdated $22 million valuation. The no-bid process was no model either. But Sedgwick County’s sale of the Kansas Coliseum complex to Wichita developer Johnny Stevens invests the dated facility with a promising new life while keeping a public promise.
It also ends an era for a venue that was built for a bare-bones $10.3 million in private and public funds but that, over 32 years, played host to the eclectic likes of Bob Hope, John Denver, Garth Brooks, Metallica, Luciano Pavarotti and Cher.
Among the things to cheer in the sale, which closed Tuesday:• It puts the complex at I-135 and 85th Street North on the tax rolls, as it ends county taxpayers’ $743,300-a-year subsidization of the money-losing facility. That’s a nice change for a property that’s been underused since the Intrust Bank Arena opened two years ago, and that risked long-term disuse and decay.
• Stevens has committed to keep the site’s Kansas Pavilions open for at least four more years for popular long-running uses such as swap meets, gun shows, horse and dog events, and this weekend’s 23rd-annual Wichita RV Show. The county deserves credit for ensuring that its sale of the venue didn’t violate the 2010 pledge to loyal users to keep the pavilions open through Jan. 1, 2016, and Stevens deserves credit for sustaining that pledge.
• Stevens has a deal with Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research to begin using the site’s former Britt Brown Arena for full-scale structural testing for commercial and military clients. NIAR officials expect to do about $15 million of contract work annually over the next three to four years, which should enable NIAR to add jobs – as it adds to its reputation as one of the world’s most important testing laboratories for airplane parts, avionics and composites and, in the process, to Wichita’s status as a full-service aviation cluster.
• Stevens is upgrading the facility, starting with an urgently needed new roof on the arena. Park City, which aims to annex the Coliseum ground, is ready to help with $5 million in industrial revenue bonds.
Would it have been better if the sale of this public asset had happened through a process of competitive bidding? Of course. But a 2009 request drew only questionable proposals, which county commissioners wisely set aside. And as County Commissioner Dave Unruh said last fall, “We have been virtually begging folks to make an offer for two years.”
And if the sales price seems too low today, it is sparing the county from seeing the empty arena continue to deteriorate and the pavilions continue to rely on tax dollars to operate.
As Commissioner Richard Ranzau noted at Wednesday’s meeting, after speaking with regret about the county employees affected by the sale, the likelihood is that “we will look back at this and see this as a net plus” for the area and county. “Just give it some time. I think we’ll all be very happy.”
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman