KC Pet Project finds itself pitted against an unlikely contingent: the disc-golf community

The lost and the broken have a way of ending up on Raytown Road, near the Truman Sports Complex. Along this stretch of land over the years have been a tuberculosis hospital, a state penitentiary, Kansas City’s tow lot, and the city’s animal shelter. 

Of those, only the animal shelter still operates today. Grim and dilapidated, it sits atop a hill overlooking a former landfill. 

Unlike, say, the old tuberculosis hospital, which was razed in 1971, the animal shelter was never meant to offer the illusion of comfort. It wasn’t even supposed to be an animal shelter. It had been slapped together in 1972 as a storage shed for the construction of the Truman Sports Complex. When the stadiums were finished, the city decided to turn it into a dog pound. Over the years, as demand for animal services increased, the city didn’t erect a dedicated facility; it instead hauled in trailers to house a vet clinic and administrative staff. The shelter today is so overcrowded that some employees sit at desks in the middle of hallways. 

The dogs, of course, have it worse.

Until the city privatized operation of the shelter, in 2009, following a damning report from the Missouri Department of Agriculture, about 65 percent of all animals that arrived at the shelter were eventually euthanized. That number dropped by about half under the supervision of Wayne Steckelberg, who ran the shelter from 2009 to 2011. After (unproven) allegations of animal neglect surfaced against Steckelberg, the city opted not to renew his contract. On January 1, 2012, KC Pet Project assumed management of the space. 

“We’re basically a group of animal-welfare advocates who organized together because we thought we could do better than the previous euthanization rate,” says Tori Fugate, marketing and development director at KC Pet Project. 

They have. In 2016, KC Pet Project’s live-release rate — the percentage of animals that leave the shelter alive, whether through adoption or return to owner —  stood at an impressive 94 percent. 

KC Pet Project’s oversight of the Raytown Road shelter has coincided with a larger cultural trend in pet ownership that falls in line with its mission. More and more people prefer to “rescue” dogs and cats from shelters rather than obtain them from a breeder: Paris Hilton purebreds are out; altruism and mutts are in. This has sent more prospective adopters to KC Pet Project, which has in turn increased Kansas Citians’ awareness of how decrepit the facilities that house its animal shelter really are. 

In April 2017, nearly 45 years after this makeshift pound took in its first stray, voters approved Question 3, a $50 million bond ask for building repairs, $14 million of which was earmarked for a new animal shelter. (Another $6 million or so will come from private donations.) KC Pet Project’s new home will not be on Raytown Road. The plan calls instead for a relocation to Swope Park — on a piece of property occupied by the oldest and, depending on whom you’re talking to, finest disc-golf course in Kansas City. 

Dan Cashen has accumulated so much goodwill in the Kansas City disc-golf community over the years that he can drive his truck up onto the Swope Park course in the middle of Saturday afternoon play without suffering so much as a dirty glare. It’s all smiles and waves and Hey, Dans from the few dozen players on the grounds as Cashen maneuvers his Ford F-150 across the tan December grass. 

“What is it, 35 degrees?” Cashen says, gesturing at a cluster of bundled-up die-hards near the fourth hole. “These people are crazy, man. They’ll play in the driving rain, they’ll play in the snow — actually, playing in the snow is pretty fun. You put little ribbons on the discs so you can find them when they slide under. And it’s real quiet and still. It’s beautiful, actually.” 

Cashen is 56 years old, tall, bearded, imposing, a pipefitter by trade. He’s been tossing spheres — bulky frisbees in the old days, smaller, denser discs today — on this patch of land since the early 1980s. Back then, it was on a pay course courtesy of a man named Tom Ingle, the first person to bring disc golf to Kansas City following the founding of the sport, in 1975, in Oak Grove, California. Ingle made a deal with the Kansas City, Missouri, Parks and Recreation Department whereby he installed nine baskets on some park acreage just off the corner of Gregory Boulevard and Elmwood Avenue. He was responsible for mowing the grass; in exchange, Ingle was permitted to charge players a buck a round. 

Disc golf was then still relatively unknown, though, and Ingle struggled to make a business of it. In 1990, he shut down the course, taking his baskets with him. At that point, volunteers with the newly formed Kansas City Flying Disc Club began working with the city to maintain the grounds and convert them into a free public course. 

Cashen liked playing the course but saw room for improvement and had some ideas. In 1994, he began to take a more proactive role. “I walked into the doors at the parks department and made my introductions and told them about the stuff I wanted to do with Swope,” Cashen recalls. “They were great. They said, ‘Knock yourself out.’” 

Cashen cruises the course and points out the improvements he has made (with help, he notes, from other disc golfers who volunteered their time) to the terrain. He installed benches so players could rest between holes. He erected pleasant signage. He brought in a bulldozer to shape some land, and he built earth bridges across the swampy hill bottoms. He constructed a small pro shop with an elevated deck looking out onto the course. Most of these things, he paid his own money to do. 

“My wife hated it,” Cashen says of the bills he racked up. “But in my mind, it was necessary to elevate everybody’s idea of what disc golf could be. And it worked. Play started to build. People really started coming out. We became a destination for people coming through town. We transformed this piece of ground in the middle of Kansas City into this kinda world-renowned spot.” 

When Cashen and the KCFDC learned, in 2016, that the city was interested in moving KC Pet Project onto some of the Swope course’s land, they didn’t put up so much as a whimper of protest.

“The way it was presented to us initially is that they only needed about 7 acres,” says Jack Lowe, secretary and spokesman for the KCFDC. “Which we were fine with. We’re on about 25 acres. We figured we’d have to relocate three holes, maybe four holes. No worries.”

Then came word that a city setback ordinance for boulevards meant that KC Pet Project would have to be built farther from Gregory, meaning a different cluster of holes would have to be relocated. 

“Again, we had no problem with that,” Cashen says. “We’d still only be losing four holes, and we had enough space to redesign the course to accommodate KC Pet Project — which, by the way, we all think is a wonderful organization. We love what they’ve done with the pound, and we were happy to share the land with them. And, I mean, it’s a park — it’s public land. We get that.” 

About two months ago, though — and, notably, after the bond vote passed — KCFDC received word from the parks department that, actually, KC Pet Project needed more than the original seven acres. It now needed about 20 acres: more or less the entire Swope Park Disc Golf Course. 

Lowe and Cashen see their group as, essentially, a victim of its own chill. 

“I think because we [disc golfers] were cool about it and didn’t come out loudly as a community and say, you know, ‘We’ve been here 40 years, why can’t you put that shelter somewhere else on this 1,800-acre park?’ — I think that gave the city and the [KC] Pet Project the impression that they could just take it all,” Cashen says.

Tori Fugate, marketing and development director with KC Pet Project, says her organization was under the impression that the plan was always for a full relocation of the disc-golf course. 

“We were told by multiple people before the vote that the disc-golf folks were totally fine with the course being moved,” Fugate tells The Pitch. “So we were surprised a few months ago when we started to hear that they weren’t happy. It was never our intention to upset anyone. I think we were maybe told different things.” 

In late November, following a damning city audit of animal-control services, a proposal was floated at City Council to outsource those services to KC Pet Project. A decision is likely to be made in the coming months. Lowe suspects this may have something to do with the sudden need for more land. 

“My own theory is that they [KC Pet Project] now expect they will soon have animal control under their authority and so they want to be able to build a behemoth place here,” Lowe says. 

Fugate says that’s partly true. “We do think it would make sense to house everything under one roof, because those functions [animal control and the shelter] are related.” 

But, she says, the plans for the new facility — which are being finalized with architecture firm HNTB and general contractor Grand Construction — “have not dramatically expanded the size” of the building or ground. “Some extra offices but not significant growth,” Fugate says. 

Parks Director Mark McHenry says the KC Pet Project plan “has been refined since the spring,” requiring more outdoor space where the animals can exercise and drink in the fresh air. “We’re just providing park land to build the building,” he says. “As for programming or what KC Pet Project will do on that land, we’re not a part of those conversations.” 

Cashen, who speaks highly of the parks department, says it’s his perception that these decisions are “coming down from the big house — City Hall. It’s not parks making these decisions. Parks is being told to where to put this building.” 

Who’s the decider, then? Who from on high decided there was nowhere else KC Pet Project could thrive other than on the grounds of this beloved disc-golf course? 

“Parks, the city manager, [KC] Pet Project, the group that was doing fundraising for the private portion of the Pet Project — it was a group effort,” says Councilman Scott Wagner, who’s pushing for the privatization of animal control. “When the GO bond was being discussed, there was a group that got together and said, ‘Hey, the Pet Project needs 60,000 square feet, needs some open space for animals — where does the city have land that would work for this?’ Obviously, there was interest in doing this on city property so as to avoid the costs of land acquisition. And this was the location that was deemed to best suit those needs.” 

Cashen pulls off the course and drives about a mile east down Gregory, past Lakeside Nature Center and a relatively new dog park. Here, in a low, flood-prone valley bisected by Oldham Road, is where the city wants to stick the new Swope disc-golf course. 

“I don’t know, man,” Cashen says, sighing. “There’s no elevation changes like we have up on Elmwood. No rolling hills. Players would have to cross this busy street to get to and from holes. The planners say they can put in what they call ‘calming effects’ — speed bumps, speed tables, pedestrian-crossing signs. But I don’t know, man. We’ve [the KCFDC] got a lot of good design ideas, smart people. I mean, the Elmwood course wasn’t pretty at first, either. But I don’t know if even we can make a course out of this.” 

McHenry says there will be money to pay for the costs of relocating the course, wherever it ends up. “KC Pet Project is very much aware that part of the money they’re receiving from the bond will have to address that cost [of relocating the course],” he says. “Compared to the overall cost, it’s a relatively small number, and I feel confident saying we will make sure we have a nice facility for the new Swope course.” 

Cashen says he’s run the numbers and has it pegged somewhere around $350,000 to $400,000. 

“I’m a contractor myself, and I built this course, so I have a pretty good idea of what it would cost to move it,” he says. “You gotta clear land, build tee sites, build greens, put in bridges, parking lots, bathrooms. If we’re at $400,000 just to move us, at that point, why doesn’t the city just buy some land somewhere instead of running us off?” 

Lowe likens the city’s takeover of the course to a cycle that vaguely resembles gentrification. “We improve the luster of the land because we take ownership and pride in what we do,” Lowe says. “So, then what? They come in and boot us out. So, what happens when we create something beautiful in the new spot and some other organization comes along and wants it?”

Back at the Elmwood course, Cashen calls attention to a white structure faintly visible through a ridge of trees far in the distance. 

“That’s Mr. Swope’s memorial up there,” Cashen says, referring to the majestic colonnade where Thomas Swope, who donated the park land in 1896, is buried. 

“I know it’s not our land,” he continues. “But it’s a park. It’s the public’s land. And now they’re gonna privatize it. You know, it’s supposed to be for recreational activities. And here we are, recreating.” 

Cashen turns and gazes out at the particular parcel of Mr. Swope’s land he’s stewarded for the past two decades. Discs fly, dogs bark, birds chirp. 

“It’s a great piece of ground,” he says. “I understand why they want it.” 

Thoughts? Tips? Email david.hudnall@pitch.com 

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