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Proposals for Coliseum face questioning

Britt Brown Arena and the Sam Fulco pavilions make up the Kansas Coliseum.
Britt Brown Arena and the Sam Fulco pavilions make up the Kansas Coliseum. The Wichita Eagle

At least one Sedgwick County commissioner thinks it's a "distinct" possibility he won't endorse either proposal to develop the Kansas Coliseum.

Commissioners heard Tuesday from North American Management-Kansas and Heritage Development Group, both of which want the chance to forge the future of the aging complex.

North American wants to build an entertainment and retail venue with hotels while addressing Americans With Disabilities Act issues at Britt Brown Arena.

Heritage wants to turn the Coliseum complex into the Saddle Rock Rodeo Resort, an event center for nonprofessional rodeos and other agricultural and livestock-oriented events.

Commissioner Dave Unruh said he has yet to make up his mind about which plan is better for the county.

Asked if he thought it was possible the county wouldn't endorse either, he said, "I think that's a very distinct possibility, from my perspective at least."

Commissioners asked each group tough questions about financing the projects. North American has estimated it would build a $25 million project. Heritage would build a $23 million project.

Both have said they would use STAR — sales tax and revenue — bonds as part of their financing. STAR bonds help develop major commercial projects by channeling state sales tax revenue from businesses in the district toward public improvements.

The bonds require state approval, and some commissioners remain unconvinced that the projects would qualify for financing under state requirements. The bonds require a $50 million investment to be approved, among other criteria.

Greg Ferris, a consultant working with Heritage, told commissioners that the group met with Kansas Secretary of Commerce David Kerr, who Ferris said thought the project would qualify for STAR bonds.

A Commerce official confirmed later that the group had met with the department.

The project would appear to be eligible if a $50 million investment was made, said spokesman Joe Monaco.

Heritage or North American could ask the Kansas Legislature to change the law to lower the investment threshold, Monaco said.

Each group has said it would kick in $5 million in private money.

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said he remained concerned about financing for both projects.

"A substantial local investment would be required," he said.

Unruh said that both plans "have some strong, attractive components. Both definitely have some downsides, I guess you might call it risk."

A review committee that initially met with Heritage and North American — as well as Hartman Arena, which withdrew its proposal Monday — has yet to make a recommendation to commissioners.

It's not yet known when commissioners will vote on a plan.

The future of the Coliseum, off I-135 near 85th North, has been uncertain since voters approved a downtown arena in 2004. Intrust Bank Arena will open early next year. County Manager William Buchanan initially recommended in his budget for next year to close the complex to save money. But groups that use the pavilions rallied to keep them open.

Greg Lippincott, president and CEO of Heritage, said that if his group's plan were selected, Sedgwick County would become recognized as the nation's "ultimate" nonprofessional rodeo facility.

He said Heritage has a verbal agreement with the National High School Rodeo Association for the Wrangler Junior High Rodeo Finals in 2012 and 2013. But he admitted there's no contract because Saddle Rock doesn't yet exist.

However, he said he believed landing the Wrangler Junior High Rodeo Finals would lead to other national events.

"When you turn to the lead horse, the rest will follow, and we've got that lead horse," he told commissioners.

Doug Spangler, co-owner and managing director of North American, said that project is "a dramatic development that would maximize the site."

"Our proposal stands alone on its own," Spangler said, adding that North American's proposal wouldn't compete with the county-owned Intrust Bank Arena, a requirement by the county.

"Our team is ready to prove today and over the next few months . . . to be the partner that maintains a zero risk for the county. We will get there if we are selected."

Spangler, who is associated with a plan to build a Wyandotte Nation casino at the former Wild West World south of the Coliseum, fielded questions from Unruh about whether North American's Coliseum proposal is tied to the casino project.

"This project has nothing to do with the casino at all," he said.

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