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John Q. Hammons Makes Surprise Donation of
 $800,000 to the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame
By Jeffrey Parson, The Wichita Eagle, Kan.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Jun. 15, 2005 - The piece of paper -- actually a news release for a junior golf tournament -- was just something Bob Hanson happened to have in his pocket on May 31.

Hanson, president of the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission, used it to sketch out how John Q. Hammons would donate $800,000 to the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame.

The donation from Hammons -- the owner of Hammons Hotels of Springfield, Mo. --was officially announced Tuesday. His donation -- $500,000 initially and annual payments after that -- will allow the hall to finally open this fall at 238 N. Mead in Old Town, according to executive director Ted Hayes.

"When Bob told me, I literally went to my knees," Hayes said of Hammons' donation. "I went from dead of night to sun coming up that quick."

The nonprofit hall of fame moved from Abilene to Wichita in 2002 when the city paid $1.7 million to buy and renovate its Old Town home. The hall has spent several hundred thousand dollars since then, but it was still unable to open because of a lack of funding.

Hammons, whose company has developed 163 hotels in 40 states, reportedly is interested in building a 250- to 300-room Embassy Suites in Wichita, if he can attach it to the planned downtown arena.

ButHammons, 86, said Tuesday he's nowhere close to agreeing to such a deal and thinks Wichita already has too many hotel rooms. He said his donation to the hall is not tied to any future hotel deal.

"Not one bit," he said.

Hayes said the hall of fame has made more than 100 presentations to try to raise money. Wichita's slow economy and the "wait-and-see" attitude of others -- skeptical about something that had yet to open -- forced Hayes and Hanson to look outside the state.

"We wanted to build from within," Hayes said, "but it was getting more difficult all the time to even find prospects to whom we could make a presentation."

That's where Hammons came in. Hanson, who's also on the hall of fame's board of directors, met Hammons at the 2003 College World Series.

Hammons was there to cheer on Southwest Missouri State, a school where a good portion of the buildings and streets bear his name. That includes the Hammons Student Center, the school's basketball arena, and Hammons Field, the baseball stadium.

He also founded and funded the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, located in Springfield, in 1992. Hanson called Hammons this spring about becoming a lead donor for Kansas' version.

"He asked me what we needed, and I told him half a million to open, a million for the naming rights," Hanson said. "He quickly fires back, 'Oh my goodness, no, I can't do that.' Then there was a pause.

"And then he asked, 'How much for the naming rights again?' I've been pretty confident ever since then."

It took several phone calls for Hanson to finally pin Hammons down. On May 31, Hammons called Hanson at a golf course and told him to get a pen. Hanson did and scribbled down the deal on the only piece of paper he could find: the junior golf news release.

Hanson knew the ramifications as he scribbled the numbers on that sheet of paper. It's why he kept it with him and looked at it each day before turning it over to Hayes on Tuesday.

"The only thing he demanded is that we must have quality," Hanson said of Hammons.

To honor the gift, the entrance to the hall of fame will be named the John Q. Hammons Plaza. When he was shown a sketch of the proposed sign, Hammons studied it carefully before quietly saying, "That's fine."

"I've been assured this will not fail," Hammons said. "Or else I'll have to give more money, and that's not the deal I made."

Hammons said he decided to make the gift because he appreciates sports -- he has been to the last 45 college Final Fours and 47 Cincinnati Reds spring training camps -- and because Hayes and Hanson "kept riding me."

The donation wouldn't necessarily help Hammons with a potential hotel deal. Mayor Carlos Mayans said he was appreciative of the donation, but he said that each deal will be looked at individually and that this doesn't make Hammons more of a player in Wichita.

"Mr. Hammons is already a player," Mayans said. "He doesn't need that title... from us. But by the same token, the same rules apply to him as applies to anyone else."

Wichita businessman George Fahnestock, an arena proponent and hall of fame trustee, said Hammons' donation has nothing to do with a potential hotel deal.

"He's going to do business here if it makes sense for him to do business here," Fahnestock said. "He's not contributing any money to the sports hall of fame in Wichita, Kansas, to grease the deal for the arena downtown."

Hayes estimates attendance will reach at least 35,000 annually when the hall opens all 27,000 square feet this fall. Asked whether it would be early fall or late fall, he smiled.

"We'll say late fall for now," he said, "and then hope we beat it."

Contributing: Carrie Rengers of The Eagle.


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Copyright (c) 2005, The Wichita Eagle, Kan.

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