Wichita weighs bond request for bowling center

City Council members are trying to decide whether a proposed project on Maize Road north of Kellogg is the type of development they want to endorse for up to $13 million in local and state sales tax.

Jay Maxwell's development group believes the $95 million Bowllagio bowling center would draw tourists from afar for training and tournaments, and that it would generate millions more dollars in property taxes that benefit the city.

But two operators of Wichita bowling centers question whether the project can succeed.

And some council members remain uneasy with the idea of forwarding the project on to the Kansas Secretary of Commerce for more analysis until they have more information.

That's because there have been legislative efforts to limit the use of sales tax revenue bonds — or STAR bonds —and some wonder how this project's approval might affect future requests from the Wichita area.

Nonetheless, council members voted to have a June 8 public hearing on the project.

The Bowllagio development would begin with a huge bowling center, a bowling museum and a high-tech training center.

Some building sites for restaurants also would be sold.

Later phases include a four-level hotel and more commercial developments to fill the 32-acre site.

The process hinges on the state eventually approving STAR bond financing.

That lets the Kansas Department of Revenue capture incremental increases in sales taxes collected in an approved district and use the money to pay the principal and interest on STAR bonds issued to finance some project expenses.

The process of getting the STAR bonds would take at least three months.

Council member Sue Schlapp said the STAR bond issue is "pretty painful" for her.

She said she wants an update on how the process would work.

"I'm not sure I want to use up all my chips without knowing exactly where I'm going," she said.

"We don't want to take this lightly," she said later. "We want to make sure this is the one we carry forward."

Tim Austin, who has been working with Maxwell's Maize 54 LLC, said that the development area currently generates about $30,000 a year in property taxes.

Once the entire development is completed, he said it could generate about $2.9 million a year. So, while the increased local and state sales tax are used to pay for aspects of the development, it is a benefit for the city, he said.

Austin said there are only three other major bowling training centers in the United States and that this project will have unique aspects that developers believe can draw the required 20 percent of patrons from out of state and 30 percent from at least 100 miles away.

State guidelines require STAR bond projects to be a major tourism draw.

"We know that bowling is big not only in America, but internationally," he said.

Two operators of other bowling centers question the project.

At least one longtime businessman in bowling said the project does not make sense to him.

"Wichita is overbuilt with bowling centers right now," said Frank DeSocio, who with his wife Cathy built Northrock Lanes years ago and runs seven bowling centers.

The bowling business, like all the entertainment business, is flat right now, said DeSocio, a past president of the Kansas Bowling Proprietors Association. Bowling centers are closing. And he isn't buying the argument that this project would somehow draw people to Wichita for training.

"We understand the business, and we don't mind competition," DeSocio said. "I don't understand what their thinking is. I'm not sure what they want to build is sustainable."

Ray Baty, general manager of West Acres Bowl, said that three bowling centers have recently closed in Wichita and that he questions whether the public financing of Bowllagio will contribute to more closing.

"It's a struggle out there in the bowling industry," he said.

He said he invites competition, but that other bowling alleys open up without the government's financial aid.

"You will affect existing facilities in this city, with the possibly of maybe shutting some of them down," he said.

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