As part of our 30/30 Vision series, KCUR takes a look at three of Kansas City’s grandest ideas from the last 30 years.
Given our inescapable association with The Wizard of Oz (among folks not from around here), it made sense to just surrender and exploit it.
Los Angeles attorney Robert Kory’s proposal to do so consumed Johnson County officials and citizens for most of the 1990s.
At first, Kory’s Oz theme park was planned for Wyandotte County, where leaders funded a feasibility study that showed the numbers looking good. Kory engaged North Hollywood-based theme park designer Landmark Entertainment Group and hoped to have a $500 million park and resort open by early 1996. But NASCAR had its eyes on the same land, so the proposed deal went south, to DeSoto.
More than 9,000 acres were available cheap at the former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant, toxic from its 50 years producing rocket and small-arms propellants; also on the property, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, were “laboratories, a wastewater and drinking water treatment plant, power plants, disposal areas… and burning areas for destruction of explosives-contaminated material.”
In other words, the perfect location for a theme park, hotel, housing development and golf course!
The Kansas Legislature invented the economic development incentive known as STAR bonds to help finance the project, earmarking $250 million for Kory.
Opponents, mainly Taxpayers Opposed to Oz – yes, TOTO – yipped incessantly at the project’s pant legs. One of their leaders was Bill Sheldon. Fighting the project gave him a purpose before he died of leukemia in 2002, says his wife, Janette Sheldon.
“He thought it was the most ludicrous thing he’d ever heard of,” she says.
Others began to agree. As years passed, the estimated cost of the project rose to more than $860 million and doubts about Kory’s financing grew. By late 2001, Johnson County commissioners decided there would be no further discussion.
“I’m not so sure that, if it was done right and they had the money, they couldn’t have made it work,” says John Ballou, a now-former state representative whose district included Sunflower.
Late last year came reports that environmental remediation had finally begun, but the Army had been fighting with Sunflower Redevelopment LLC (Kansas City’s Kessinger/Hunter & Co. LC and Denver’s International Risk Group LLC) about who was responsible. Cleanup reportedly might be finished by 2028.
Ballou says the area’s better off without Oz.
“I think eventually we’ll see a lot of bioscience, medical science and animal science being done out there,” he says. “In next 10 or 20 years, that could be one of the hottest and most viable high employment areas in all of Kansas City.”
With, naturally, new homes and a golf course.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.
This story is part of KCUR's series called 30/30 Vision, in which we examine Kansas City's past to reimagine its future.