Commentary: Building More Than Sport Venues

Jul 15, 2016

Artist's rendering of the proposed ice rink at Bluhawk in Overland Park, Kan.
Credit bluhawk.com

Just think, for a moment, about how many great sports stories begin with an open field, or an empty stretch of asphalt. Maybe a cornfield. An old sandlot.

Consider, then, the unoccupied, overgrown acreage at the intersection of 98th Street and Parallel Parkway in Kansas City, Kansas. On Sunday, that ground was broken for what will become the National Training and Coaching Development Center, a $62-million project that will serve not just as a new home base for Sporting Kansas City—but a cutting-edge soccer training facility for the United States men’s, women’s and youth national teams, as well as a new Children’s Mercy Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center.

Yes, a great new start—and only part of a growing story. All the way across town, it’s only been a couple months since Mayor Sly James and Royals GM Dayton Moore turned some dirt in Parade Park at 18th and Vine to officially begin construction on the Urban Youth Academy. Funded by $14 million of public and private funds—including some high-profile donations from Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon—the development will eventually include baseball and softball fields and an indoor facility with batting cages, pitching mounds and more—as well as upgraded basketball and tennis courts and a playground at the nearby community center. The Royals are covering the operating costs and partnering with the Boys and Girls Club for a slate of off-field programming.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has lauded the KC effort as a “model” for other academies that he’d like to see across the country.

And 30 miles away, in south Overland Park, more fertile ground awaits. Developers just won zoning approval for a new arena that would host a junior-league hockey team planned by Missouri Mavericks owner Lamar Hunt, Junior—an expansion club of the USHL, which features the best amateur players under the age of 20. Part of a project that includes a museum, hospital, and retail space, the arena could also provide additional “sheets of ice” for the Kansas City Youth Hockey Association, established last year.

“We thought it was a long shot,” Sporting CEO Robb Heineman said, standing in the open field from which an 80,000-square-foot facility and more than a dozen pro and youth soccer pitches will grow. “But we kept asking ourselves, why can’t Kansas City do this?”

The first seeds being planted around town won’t begin to bloom until later this fall; some tussles over tax incentives and resistance from residents remain; fruition of all phases is more than a year away. And ceremonial shovel strikes and new zoning ordinances may not be the kinds of victories that spark fans to stand up and cheer. Yet they’re the latest indication of the seismic shift in the Kansas City sports scene, from long-lamented futility to new long-term investment. Not the kind where taxpayers buy billionaire owners an unnecessary new stadium, but that further blends sports and development and community.

The future will come, so why not build it?

Victor Wishna is a regular commentator on KCUR's Up To Date.