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Kansas City's Effort to Fix its Ailing Convention
 Business Now in its Fourth Decade
By Rick Alm, The Kansas City Star, Mo.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Mar. 2, 2005 - Mayor Kay Barnes and other city officials snipped the ribbon Tuesday on a $3.8 million face-lift at Municipal Auditorium.

"This ... assures Kansas City its rightful place as the convention center of the nation," said the mayor. "It is a position to which the city is entitled by its geographic location, and transportation and hotel facilities."

Oops, wrong mayor. Those actually were the words of former Kansas City Mayor Bryce E. Smith on April 5, 1936, when he dedicated the new, $6.5 million Municipal Auditorium.

Things didn't quite work out as Smith foresaw them.

For a brief time Municipal Auditorium did rank as the second-largest convention hall in the nation, seating more than 13,000.

But other cities caught and soon surpassed Kansas City with bigger and better facilities.

Kansas City has been playing catch-up ever since.

"These are just a few of the changes to bring this facility up to today's standards ... restoring Municipal to its original glory," Barnes told about 100 people at Tuesday's ceremony. The crowd then munched on hot dogs and giant pretzels while trying out the arena's 9,500 new upholstered seats beneath bright new lighting and acoustical fixtures.

Elsewhere in the building, dressing rooms got a dressing up with new carpeting, paint and other improvements, the arena's leaky ceiling was fixed, and lots of fresh paint was applied .

"This is more than a sporting arena," Barnes said, and Municipal's schedule backs her up.

Grammy-winning Green Day's May 15 concert already is a sellout. The Skills-USA and Wal-Mart Stores national meetings in Kansas City each year fill every square inch of Bartle and Municipal. And Municipal is a frequent venue for wedding receptions, proms and other large gatherings.

The city's effort to fix its ailing convention business is now in its fourth decade.

Bartle Hall was built in the mid-70s to regain a competitive edge, but the lack of other attractions around Bartle's mid-sized exhibit hall made it harder to attract big conventions and become a national force.

Bartle Hall got bigger in the mid-90s, but by then the surrounding downtown district had decayed further.

Municipal Auditorium, a landmark of the art deco school of architecture, had lapsed into disrepair along with the rest of downtown.

"This place was tired ... dull," said Oscar McGaskey Jr., director of the convention facilities department that manages the downtown complex, including Municipal. "This will help us with bookings."

Bartle also is getting a $135 million makeover, with new meeting rooms and state-of-the-art technology upgrades, and a 46,500-square-foot ballroom addition that breaks ground this spring.

Unlike past efforts, this round of improvements to the convention complex is just one element of a multibillion-dollar downtown makeover that includes the $280 million, seven-block Kansas City Live entertainment district.

The revived area will have Bartle Hall on the west end and the planned $250 million Sprint Arena at 14th Street and Grand Boulevard on the east.

Other major pieces of the downtown puzzle include the proposed $304 million Metropolitan Performing Arts Center at 16th and Central and the $160 million H&R Block headquarters building, parking garage, shops and outdoor public plaza centered at 13th and Main streets.

At Municipal, Chuck Eddy, a council member and chairman of the city's Convention Management Advisory Authority, said more than $4 million worth of renovation pumped into the building's Exhibition Hall last year and nearly $4 million this year dwarfed city spending on the auditorium at any time in recent memory.

Municipal is the home court of the UMKC Kangaroos .

The building's long history offers a special allure, he said.

Political conventions, circuses, nationally renowned concert artists and nine national NCAA championship games all have happened at Municipal.

"We bring our basketball recruits here to show them where we play," Thomas said Tuesday, standing almost under one basket.

"It really grabs them when we tell them John Wooden won his first national championship here under that clock," he said pointing to the original fixture still keeping accurate time on an arena wall.

Tuesday's ribbon-cutting was just in time for this year's edition of March Madness. More than 70 college teams trek to Kansas City this month for five regional or national basketball tournaments.

Four of those events will be staged at Municipal starting this weekend with the MIAA men's and women's postseason championship games.

The tournaments wrap up in Kansas City March 29 with regional play in the NCAA Division I women's championship.

In between will be the Phillips 66 Men's and Women's Big 12 tournaments and the Buffalo Funds-NAIA Division I men's national championship games.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Kansas City estimates 150,000 fans will attend the hoops extravaganzas, around half of them from out of town.

Collectively those fans will leave an estimated $38 million in Kansas City.

That's not madness. That's big-league tourism business.

-----To see more of The Kansas City Star, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.kansascity.com.

(c) 2005, The Kansas City Star, Mo. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. For information on republishing this content, contact us at (800) 661-2511 (U.S.), (213) 237-4914 (worldwide), fax (213) 237-6515, or e-mail reprints@krtinfo.com. WMT,

 
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