Hy-Vee Arena, home to NBA and NHL teams when it was Kemper Arena, now provides playing space for residents plus regional and national youth tournaments. (Courtesy Hy-Vee Arena)

Renovated Hy-Vee Arena provides Kansas City with a new place to play

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For Alfonso Hayes and those who play in his Ball Up Sporting adult basketball program, the recently renovated Hy-Vee Arena provides more than just a warm, dry location to play the game they love.

“It’s a central place,” he said on a recent early spring day as he watched a pickup game drift up and down one of the building’s numerous open courts. “It’s become more like a community.”

That is precisely what developer Steve Foutch had in mind five years ago when he first considered buying and renovating long-neglected Kemper Arena, for 33 years Kansas City’s primary arena, in the West Bottoms neighborhood southwest of downtown. He foresaw a sports facility that could be used by the entire Kansas City community on a daily basis and not just by collegiate and professional teams only occasionally.

“We’re like a big YMCA,” Foutch said of the facility, which reopened in October 2018 after a $39 million renovation. “Nights and weekends are very busy in here.”

The project, which Foutch said was the first of its kind in the United States, involved remaking a vast open floor space and seating into three levels of courts that can accommodate basketball, volleyball, wrestling, pickleball and other sports. There is also a permanent running track and provision for a five-lane, 350-meter competition surface running track. One level can also be used for banquet space.

Regional grocer Hy-Vee signed  a 10-year naming-rights deal for the arena in May. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

In addition to serving the sporting and wellness needs of the local community, Hy-Vee Arena is drawing regional and national youth athletic tournaments. Recent events include a wrestling tournament and a youth cheerleading competition. Foutch said the space was booked for such events for most of 2019. 

As a parent, Foutch said making the arena hospitable and comfortable for youth events was a priority in the redevelopment.

“I’ve spent a lot of time as a parent (of a youth athlete) in bad venues and bad locations. Here, the parents can come up and grab a beer and relax.”

There are seven spots for food and drink sprinkled around the main concourse of the arena with plans for more. Office space is available for rent as well, and the Kansas City Tornadoes, an NBA G League franchise, make the venue their home.

When it first opened in 1974, Kemper was home to the NBA’s Kansas City Kings, the Scouts of the NHL and the iconic American Royal livestock and horse showcase. The arena also played host to A-list concerts, the Big 8 Conference men’s basketball tournament for many years, and was even the site of the 1988 NCAA men’s Final Four, from which local favorite Kansas emerged as an unlikely national champion.

But with the opening of Sprint Center in 2007, Kemper was rendered nearly obsolete, as bigger-ticket events shifted to the new downtown venue. Before the renovation and renaming, the years of neglect were beginning to show.

“It was dark and smelly, and was hosting only a couple events a year,” Foutch said as he recalled his first tour of the building before he bought it — for $1 — from the city.

Even so, Foutch, whose company specializes in renovating historic structures, had to do some convincing to get the City Council to approve his plans.

First challenge: There was no template to follow anywhere in the United States, no examples to cite. “We haven’t seen this anywhere before,” he said.

The second challenge was more political. Certain people of influence in the community preferred to see the building razed and the space put to some other use. But Foutch persisted with his vision and won the day. The ensuing makeover took about a year.

Now, other cities with similar empty or underused venues are beginning to come calling to see what’s happened in Kansas City. Foutch said he had spoken to a handful of cities already and had even given a tour to one visiting contingent, though he wouldn’t reveal their names.

For Hayes, the local basketball league impresario, Hy-Vee Arena has pumped new life into his organization.

“It’s put us on a different platform. The quality of the courts is incredible.” He said his organization featured about 150 players — some with professional experience — on 18-24 teams. The courts are also available for daily open gym periods, at just $5 a head.

George Washington, who said he came from south Kansas City a few times a week to play during open gym, said there was nothing close to Hy-Vee Arena anywhere else in the city.

“This is the best thing they’ve got,” he said while taking a breather between games. “I think all of March Madness should be here.”