Not long ago, the drive west on I-70 through Wyandotte County offered few reasons to brake other than the occasional daring deer and the ever-present tollbooth. All that has changed. Once known as the land of abandoned cars and missed opportunities, Wyandotte County is quickly becoming the place to be if you’re young and looking for fun — or if you have millions to invest on developing rolling farmland into consumer-friendly sports facilities or retail outlets.
In its second year of operation at the intersection of I-70 and I-435, the Kansas Speedway is a drop-dead gorgeous facility. “It’s the finest track we race at, and the amenities it has available to the fans are awesome,” says Scott Wimmer, driver of the No. 27 Siemens Dodge.
Seventy-five thousand fans will pack the Kansas Speedway Sunday for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Protection One 400. Tickets are nearly impossible to find. Meanwhile, tickets to watch the Chiefs, who will be hosting Miami that same afternoon, have plummeted in street value.
For perhaps the first time, the Chiefs will take a backseat to another local event. The fact that the Chiefs will be upstaged by a Kansas City, Kansas, sporting event would have been unthinkable two years ago. But as area interest in the Chiefs and Royals continues to erode, the people west of the state line are working hard to offer alternatives.
They persuaded John Ehlert to move his minor-league baseball team from Duluth, Minnesota, to a field next door to the Kansas Speedway. Construction of a new 4,500-seat, fan-friendly baseball stadium for Ehlert’s as-yet-unnamed team is scheduled to be completed by the home opener next June. Ehlert boasts that a family of four will be able to buy tickets, concessions and souvenirs for less than one Chiefs ticket.
“We looked at the whole [Kansas City] market, and this came together,” Ehlert says. Olathe thought it had landed Ehlert’s club this summer, but KCK back-doored its Johnson County rival and added another jewel to its growing collection. Ehlert expects his team to draw more than 200,000 fans to its 45 home games next summer.
Cabela’s, an outdoor-sports enthusiasts’ retailer, opened a 188,000-square-foot store in the Village West tourism district in August. More than 250,000 people made their way through Cabela’s in the two weeks before the store’s grand opening. Store officials claim the average customer spends three hours on each visit.
Great Lodge Family Resorts of Madison, Wisconsin, will open Great Wolf Lodge in July 2003 in the same shopping district, joining Cabela’s and the new 700,000-square-foot Nebraska Furniture Mart. Lodge rooms will sleep from four to eight people and range in price from $259 a night to $379. This is not your father’s Wyandotte County.
Mayor Carol Marinovich is the Bill Snyder of Wyandotte County. Snyder took over what was arguably the worst program in college football in 1989, when he accepted the head-coaching job at Kansas State. By 1993, Snyder had the Wildcats in their first bowl game in the school’s history. Today, K-State is a perennial college football power.
Similar to what Snyder accomplished with the Wildcats, Marinovich has spearheaded the development of western Wyandotte County.
“The ripple effect that the development in western Wyandotte County is having on the rest of the county east of I-435 is what I see happening over the next five years,” Marinovich says. That ripple is badly needed; KCK’s schools and property values are still among the area’s poorest.
August 6, 1997, was the date NASCAR chose Kansas City, Kansas, over Kansas City, Missouri, as its Midwest site. It’ll be remembered as the day KCK crawled from beneath the shadow of its sister city and stood up to look it in the eye.