Disney Delusions

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This week, I’m going to do some free consulting work for Wyandotte County.

The Unified Government needs my help. Its leaders recently took a step toward approving a $980 million field-of-dreams idea put forth by a team of developers that includes a former bodybuilder with a bankruptcy on his record.

On June 7, the Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to establish a tax-increment-financing district off Interstate 435 near the Missouri River. That approval sets in motion grand plans to build “a sports and entertainment destination resort” on what is now a flood plain. The developers want to use the state’s STAR bond program, which financed Village West.

Where to begin?

Let’s start with the idea itself, which is ridiculous. This “Sport World Live” would include (deep breath) 54 playing fields, a “signature” hotel and a “five star” hotel, a technology park, a boardwalk, a 6,500-seat events center, a bowling alley, rooftop penthouses, a sports-themed hotel, a production studio, a Spanish-style shopping center, equestrian trails, a motocross track, an RV campground and an “international village” with still more shops and vacation condominiums for all those who’ve dreamed of owning a time share in Kansas City, Kansas. What’s available near the motocross track? I do love the sound of 500cc engines screaming in the evening.

The Sport World Live press kit looks like something a sophomore at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas would hand in to his marketing professor. The plan is weirdly specific in places — the “old-fashioned Boston fish market” on the boardwalk will be named Jacomo’s and serve food from New Orleans and Japan. Yet it’s also vague — the sketches look short on parking, a pretty significant detail for a project that developers say will attract 5 million (!) tourists annually.

I spoke with Craig Chambers, Sport World Live’s managing director, before the June 7 board meeting. I asked him to name a comparable project. He mentioned Disney’s Wide World of Sports, a complex in Florida that hosts activities ranging from the Pop Warner Super Bowl to spring training for the Atlanta Braves.

“This will be a world-class event that will truly bring a one-of-a-kind feel to it,” Chambers said of the KCK idea. “It will definitely be unique, one-of-a-kind.”

It had better be. The sports tourism market is already crowded. In a recent Orlando Sentinel story about the 10th anniversary of Wide World of Sports, Disney officials said more than 100 cities have built facilities to attract school-age athletes and their parents.

Competition, shlompetion, Chambers says.

“People will come, nationally and internationally,” he told me. “We will create international tourism with the different types of tournaments and events that we’re going to be holding.”

But I’m skeptical that hordes of soccer moms and dads from across the globe will rush to KCK so they can watch their kids kick balls. In Florida, Wide World of Sports attracts only 130,000 athletes a year. And remember, that’s Disney.

Even if I weren’t cynical about such projects, the team behind Sport World Live does not inspire confidence.

Chambers, for instance, is a former Mr. Missouri who used to own a gym, Iron Works, in the Northland. Pursued by creditors, Chambers ended up filing for bankruptcy in 1996. He blames the bankruptcy on a divorce. He has three ex-wives. The most recent former Mrs. Chambers complained in court papers of missed alimony payments. That case was closed in 2005.

Chambers, 43, today manages Glad Rents, an equipment rental company in Gladstone, and lives in Shawnee. Last month, a Johnson County judge ordered Chambers to pay a $3,625 judgment. Chambers says the case stemmed from an unwarranted charge by a shoppers’ club. He faults his lawyer for his failure to appear in court to contest the claim. “A ball was dropped,” he tells me.

Chambers does have a partner: Tom Lyons, an Overland Park businessman, who owns travel- and sports-related businesses, including Premiership, a soccer organization. The money guys are in St. Louis.

Still, a queasy feeling persists. The Sport World Live operations manager is Dale Froh, a principal in the bizarre effort last year to build a movie studio in Edwardsville.

Working on behalf of an outfit called Burbank Development (the name said palm trees; the incorporation papers said Overland Park), Froh proposed a $350 million development that featured everything from a sound stage to a hotel.

Their pitch was laughable. Don Powell, a partner in the project, said Burbank was looking at building in the Midwest because there were “too many distractions, both licit and illicit” in California, according to a report in the Bonner Springs Chieftain.

I reached Froh on his cell phone this week. He says the Burbank team rejected Edwardsville in favor of a site near Las Vegas (which is, of course, completely free of distractions).

When I asked about Sport World Live, Froh said, “We’re about youth sports, period.” But when I suggested that kids could play soccer or softball anywhere, Froh changed tack: “The international village will be the biggest part of this thing.” An apparent Epcot knockoff, the international village will tentatively feature “the culture, food and products of China, Greece and Germany.”

Froh also talked about tapping into “a network of domestic and international celebrities and Hall of Famers.” He declined to name any of these luminaries.

I’m vetting Sport World Live for WyCo officials because it doesn’t appear that they’ve done the work. County staffers had given their stamp of approval to the TIF district before it went to the Board of Commissioners.

At least the citizens showed some awareness. On June 7, the commissioners heard many thoughtful comments from residents who had concerns about the levee that would need to be built and the fate of the pallid sturgeon, an endangered fish that lives in the Missouri River.

Tammy Wright told the board that she was tired of being asked for money. “I love the way our children are brought up into everything we’re asked to pay for,” she said.

Some residents sound fearful that Wyandotte County has become too enamored of concrete and interchanges.

“It’s all about development since the Legends and NASCAR,” Johnny Hogue, whose family owns property near the proposed site of Sport World Live, tells me.

Before they passed the ordinance, Mayor Joe Reardon and other commissioners emphasized that their decision to create the TIF district was not an endorsement of the plan. “There’s more meetings to come,” Commissioner Mike Kane said.

But I’ve watched enough of these projects to know that they take on an air of inevitability. Before too long, city leaders start talking about how decisions have already been made.

My free advice: Tell Chambers, Froh and their supposed celebrity pals to find another flood plain.

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