By Michael Humphrey
There were plenty of doubters days before the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Tournament descended on downtown Kansas City last March. The Sprint Center, which hosted the tourney for the first time, had been tested for several months. But would the brand new entertainment facilities that make up the Power & Light District be ready for the thousands of fans before and after the games?
Pundits in the newspaper doubted. Businesspeople fretted. Fans wondered as they wandered out of the arena.
As you walked out of the west side of the Sprint Center, a pedestrian path led you past a few new buildings, bars and restaurants toward a pavilion. Before you crossed the threshold into the open space, you could see a large translucent canopy hovering 80 feet overhead and hear music pumping from a stage on the south side of the open space. Once you entered that space, doubts about Kansas City’s downtown future faded away.
Power & Light Is On
“People are excited to be here,” says Jon Stephens, who grew up in Kansas City and is now the marketing and public relations director of the Kansas City Power & Light District. “The number one comment I’ve received is, ‘I can’t believe I’m in Kansas City.’”
If you are used to a dormant downtown here, the KC Live Block is mind-bending at first. In recent memory, the block between Walnut and Grand St. at 13th and 14th was a dead zone, a couple of businesses and parking lots at best.
Suddenly it’s the ultimate living room, sort of indoors, sort of outdoors. Soft fabric chairs and couches surround fire pits near a large open bar. There’s a canopy is made of a glass-like material, which is illuminated at night and can be used for projecting colors and images that coordinate with the concert-quality lighting system on a 20’ x 44’ stage. There is also a 1,800-square-foot dance floor, and a 15’ x 24’-foot LED screen that welcomes visitors, shows basketball games and projects the performers on stage.
The space covers 25,000 square feet, divided among multi-tiered levels and two stories. It is perfect for a group of 20 tucked away or 5,000 across the space.
“…Before the games, between the games, and certainly afterward,” wrote the Kansas City Star, “they took in an area that has gone from ghost town during the last tournament here in 2005 to a burgeoning district with plenty of places to eat, drink and hang out.”
The Gordon Biersch Brewery, Lucky Strike Lanes, McFadden’s Sports Saloon, copious bars with themes from bull riding to rock and roll to urban gloss, an authentic Irish pub and more – all of these have immediate access to the KC Live Block.
This is the heart of the new district and an event venue that is going to change the way Kansas City parties for years to come. But it’s just the beginning.
“When you think about stretching from the Sprint Center all the way to the new performing arts center and the convention center,” Stephens says, “it is a large and diverse district. It absolutely changes the entertainment scene in Kansas City.”
Cordish Writ Large
“Wow factor” was necessary to make Kansas City believe in its downtown on a large scale again. Like most American cities, the core lost its way to suburban growth, fueled by miles of highways and decentralization of resources. The City Market on 5th Street offers a small vibrant district, and Crown Center/Union Station twenty blocks to the south does too. But in between was spotty at best. What started to connect the pieces was a movement by local artists who created the Crossroads district several blocks north of Crown Center. On the other side, a trendy set of nightclubs, jazz bars and restaurants emerged south of the City Market. The Power & Light District, in the heart of downtown, solidifies that revival.
And to make sure it was done right, the city sought out one of the most celebrated urban developers in America – the Cordish Company.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote: “Cordish President David S. Cordish has been called ‘the king of urban makeovers,’ a man who drives a hard bargain but delivers fresh, vibrant developments, succeeding where others have failed.”
The company’s most famous redevelopment may be in Cordish’s hometown of Baltimore, where the Inner Harbor turned a blighted area into one of the most exciting downtown entertainment districts in America.
But Kansas City is not a small feat for Cordish.
“This is the largest development our company has ever done,” Stephens says, “and one of the largest ever done in America.”
Baskets to Ballet
If the excitement began and ended in the KC Live Block, that might be large enough. But it doesn’t. The whole district covers a large swath that includes Sprint Center, H&R Block world headquarters, the Bartle Hall Convention Center, the Kansas City Power & Light Building, multiple theaters and the Kauffman Performing Arts Center, currently under construction.
Much of what will be found in between is the dining and entertainment needed to make a major development work – chain restaurants like Chipotle, Famous Dave’s Barbeque, Howl at the Moon Piano Bar and Ted’s Montana Grill as well as local fare such as Chefburger and Bristol Seafood Grill.
This is the kind of critical mass that Kansas City has needed, says William Prenevost, managing director of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, which opened its Copaken Stage in the H&R Block world headquarters last year.
“You can’t expect people to enjoy themselves fully without options like these,” Prenevost says. “We provide great artistry and now this vibrant downtown can take care of the rest.”
And while the Rep basks in the glow of its new venue, construction is under way on what all of the major arts organization leaders say will be a crown jewel in Kansas City – the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, located at 16th and Broadway.
The Moshe Safdie-designed center will house a 1,600-seat concert hall, with acoustics designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, now famous for his work at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall. The Kauffman will also house a 1,800-seat hall for opera, ballet and theater and a 400-seat auditorium for smaller events.
This comes on the heels of two other major accomplishments within blocks of the arts center – the construction of the $276 million Sprint Center arena and National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame on the east of the KCP&L, and the 40,000-square-foot Kansas City Convention Center ballroom expansion on the west.
“It’s one seamless pathway from the Convention Center to the Sprint Center and it goes right through the heart of the Power & Light District,” says Katie Slaughter, special events manager for KCP&L.
Mass and Mini Meetings
Slaughter says she has been taking phone calls from throughout the region, fielding requests to book space in the district. If callers are looking for restaurant space, she can direct them to specific businesses based on their budgets and needs.
If they are looking for larger or more public space, she coordinates the KC Live Block as well as the completely renovated Midland Theater. Built in 1927 as a live stage and silent movie theater, it remains one of the crown jewels of Kansas City’s past. The main theater offers 10,000 square feet. A fifth floor banquet hall provides beautiful views for medium-sized groups. The stage, lobby, foyer and multi-level bar (also 10,000 square feet) attached to the Midland are also available.
“We’re going to be able to accommodate just about any size group,” Slaughter says. “We’re ready for the conventions with thousands; we’re also ready for the smaller groups. Everyone is going to have a special experience.” MM&E
(Michael Humphrey is the Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)
Special Events Manager
Power & Light District
1100 Walnut St. – Suite 3000
Kansas City, MO 64106
816-842-1045 ext. 216