Kemper Reimagined – The New Hy-Vee Arena

Before the book is closed on Kemper Arena as we once knew it, there’s a Kemper memory for all of us who have been a Kansas Citian for a significant amount of time.

It could be waiting in line for standing-room-only tickets at a Big Eight Tournament semifinal with scores of Iowa State fans. It could be watching the Blades in their glory years as a family. Or it could be getting a chance to see the King of Pop, as Woody Carter did.

“When Michael Jackson came here in ’88 for the Badtour, it was a choice because WWF then was at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka,” he says. “My mom worked with a lot of wrestlers then, so she knew them and got to hang with them. So I was either going to get to go backstage and do all this fun stuff or come down here and see Michael. And I picked Michael. And it was phenomenal. We have pictures, and we were 15 rows back. That tops all of them.”

With Sprint Center stronger than ever, Kemper won’t be a big music venue in its next incarnation. What it will be, though, is an event space unlike anything else that’s been previously constructed in the country.

Now named Hy-Vee Arena, the extreme makeover will be open to the public Oct. 5 and 6 with a weekend’s worth of activities, and the most conspicuous change is that it has been divided into two levels. The lower level, which seats around 3,500, has four collegiate-sized basketball courts. The upper level, which seats almost 5,000, has eight high school-sized courts. 

Such a new setup has never been tried before in an existing building, and this multi-level transition makes Hy-Vee Arena a prime candidate for a wealth of tournaments. Carter, Hy-Vee Arena’s sales manager, has played basketball since he was five years old and toured with the Harlem Globetrotters legends for 15 years. And as important as this place originally was for basketball, hosting the 1988 Final Four and the Big Eight and Big 12 Tournaments, the potential of carrying on that basketball tradition is exciting to him.

“One of the things when I was looking into this building and what it was going to be, I saw the world’s largest multi-court youth basketball facility,” Carter says. “I had blinders, and I was like, that’s exactly what I want to be involved in and be a part of, walking in and just seeing almost two acres of continuous maple wood flooring. Every basketball player that I’ve brought in that basketball’s their heart and has been their world forever – tournament organizers, coaches, players, whatever it is – when I walk them on to the lower level, it’s just nostalgia. Man, the Kings used to play here. But then, the addition of the second floor is something that they’ve never seen before. Walking out onto that structure, they don’t say anything. They’re just standing there, and you’re taking this in and it’s … ‘Oh my gosh. What are you guys planning on doing? You guys are going to take over.’”

Built in 1974 by Helmut Jahn, who is still active, Kemper Arena was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 2016 for its distinct architectural features. For an arena that’s more than 40 years old, the bones themselves were in good shape. It was just a matter of giving it some love, and the second level was a challenge that McCown Gordon, the local construction firm doing the project, took on.

The new upper floor is not supported on its own structure, says Mike Woolley, the project manager from McCown Gordon. It’s supported on its own foundations, so there were unknowns and some risk drilling inside a finished space, all the while maintaining enough head room at the top of the gym.

“That engineering masterpiece just to drill the foundations to start with was impressive,” Woolley says. “We had lots of eyes on it, just because it’s interesting and it’s unusual. Installing almost a floating floor inside an existing structure was just an incredible opportunity and one that we’re happy it came off as it was supposed to.”

The changes don’t stop at the second floor of this nearly $39 million facelift. Take the steps up to the top of that second level where the nosebleed section of Kemper used to be and you stand at a five-lane, Mondo Super X 720 track. It will be the largest indoor track in the lower 48 states, and with a warmup area included, it should be a top-notch training facility for high-end athletes.

And it’s not just confined to sports at Hy-Vee Arena either. The 100,000 square feet of retail and office space adds to the unprecedented nature of the building. About 70 percent of that space has been contracted out, says general manager Julie Rischer, with tenants like Opera Coffee House, Cherry Sportsgear, The Smoothie Shop, and Saint Luke’s Health System. Longboards and Blue Moose are among the restaurants that have signed on. Folks can also try their hand at golf simulators and escape houses, and 120 TVs all around the complex with sitting areas will make it a veritable sports lounge.

An emphasis on health and wellness is also a priority at Hy-Vee Arena, with a gym, speed and agility training, and recovery services like hydrotherapy and cryotherapy.

“The cooldown and recovery are so important and these kids are getting driven so hard that they end up getting injured very young or burned out. If we can keep them healthy longer, they’re just going to be better all-around athletes,” Rischer says. “It’s being able to offer the adult athlete, the senior athlete, the mall walker, the ability to come in and have that proper training and coaching and guidance to still be healthy and then be able to go perform their sport, no matter how intensive it may be. And then have the resources for a proper cooldown all in the same building. We’re trying to make that well-rounded athlete: mind, body and spirit.”

This all stems from the vision of Steve Foutch, the CEO of Foutch Architecture and Development based in the Northland. His two children, one in college and the other a senior in high school, have been involved in all kinds of athletics. As a parent, you eat your share of concession-stand food, and in some cases, your kids have multiple games or events and you wait several hours before they compete again. Why, then, can’t parents have a place with comfortable seating where they can hang out, have a beer and have a good meal on site? 

Meanwhile, the Historical Society contacted Foutch, asking for his help in finding a solution for Kemper, and at the same time, he was approached about building a multi-court facility. His idea of a second floor was the “a-ha” moment in this confluence of events that got the Kemper restoration ball rolling. 

“One 32,000 square-foot floor is not enough court space to pay for the cost to operate the building,” Rischer says. “But you put in 12 courts and start renting those out? Then you become the biggest in the United States with the tournament space. It was the only way it was ever going to work.”

Once known as Mosaic Arena, the building was renamed Hy-Vee Arena in May after Mosaic Life Care had to drop out. But having Hy-Vee on board couldn’t have been more fortuitous. The grocery chain is a longtime advocate for youth sports and high school athletics, and the Hy-Vee High School Game of the Week, Team of the Week, and Athlete of the Week have been a fixture in the Kansas City area.

“Their reach is fantastic,” Rischer says, “and they really elevated the arena with us just because they’re able to do so much more with their broadcast abilities through their stores.”

The dramatic renovation of Hy-Vee Arena stands as a beacon for the revitalization taking place within the West Bottoms. Plans are in the works to develop several warehouses into apartments, restaurants, and retail between Wyoming and Liberty Streets, a $68 million project called West Bottoms Flats. “It’s becoming a home and not just an event destination,” Woolley says.

Closer to Hy-Vee Arena on Genessee Street, construction is underway for The Yards, an apartment complex with more than 230 units.

“We’re just the next progression for Kansas City’s redevelopment. We had downtown, we had the River Market, we had the Crossroads. West Bottoms is next,” Rischer says. “The city manager has said it; the mayor has said it. We have several restaurants —the Golden Ox just reopened — and there’s just a lot going on. Now people are going to start having that daily living environment down here.”

The economic impact from a new and improved West Bottoms in general, and Hy-Vee Arena specifically, could prove to be quite consequential. In the next year, practically every weekend is booked already and arena officials have projected that 50,000 hotel rooms might be used. Basketball and wrestling each cover more than a quarter of the total events, with volleyball, cheerleading, dance, and gymnastics competitions also on the horizon. 

And the sport with the third largest percentage of tournaments at Hy-Vee Arena is none other than pickleball. Before the grand opening, the 3rdShot’s a Charm Pickleball Festival 2 has the distinction of breaking in the new space on Sept. 21. 

For Rischer, who previously worked at Kemper and the American Royal Complex before accepting the general manager’s position, the anticipation is building.

“I’m so looking forward to seeing jaws drop when they walk in the building,” she says. “It’s one thing to see the pictures online. But I cannot wait to see the look on children’s faces who have never been in this building before, but to think, ‘I get to play in this? I’m big time!’ And then to see the people who have grown up with the old Kemper just walk in and say, ‘I remember being here.’ This whole project, it is incredible. It’s absolutely incredible.”

Nothing quite compares to a Michael Jackson concert at the pinnacle of his career 30 years ago, but Kemper Arena morphing into Hy-Vee Arena can create lasting memories for a lot more people.

“Just hearing the cheers and the whistles and the scoreboard going, and the smells from the food, it’s just that excitement when you walk into something that hasn’t existed anywhere else in the world,” Carter says. “Seeing it vibrant and full and just happening, and something big for Kansas City, that’s going to be a phenomenal feeling to see all of that come true pretty soon. With all the events we have booked, it’s going to happen. It’s starting to come true sooner rather than later.”


Farewell, Kemper Arena: 10 Kemper Moments

1] Nov. 2, 1974: The expansion Kansas City Scouts lose to the Chicago Blackhawks 4-3 in the first event at Kemper Arena. The National Hockey League would only be in Kansas City for two seasons.

2] Nov. 17, 1974: Muhammad Ali participates in exhibition fights and is not at all pleased with the attendance, which totaled about 3,000: “I’m not one month away from winning the world heavyweight championship before a crowd of 100 million people … and we couldn’t fill this little chicken coop.”

3] Aug. 16-19, 1976: Kemper hosts the hotly-contested Republican National Convention, as Gerald Ford holds off Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination.

4] June 18, 1977: Elvis Presley and his TCB Band perform less than two months before Elvis’ death.

5] June 4, 1979: A section of Kemper Arena’s roof collapses when a severe thunderstorm with high winds blows through the West Bottoms.

6] March 28, 1985: Coming off his final studio album, Frank Sinatra makes the first of his two Kemper Arena appearances, the other with Liza Minnelli in 1990.

7] Feb. 23-24, 1988: Michael Jackson opens the North American leg of his “Bad” tour with two shows at Kemper.

8] April 4, 1988: Danny Manning scores 31 points as Kansas upsets Oklahoma 83-79 to win the national championship in front of a deliriously pro-Jayhawk crowd.

9] Sept. 20-22, 1991: Tennis legends Andre Agassi and Jim Courier help the United States defeat Germany in the Davis Cup semifinals.

10] March 13, 2005: In a battle of coaching icons, Eddie Sutton’s Oklahoma State Cowboys defeat Bob Knight’s Texas Tech Red Raiders 72-68 in the championship game of the 27thand final Big Eight / Big 12 Tournament at Kemper.