An Arena for All Ages & Abilities

Hy-Vee Arena Reimagines Sports and Fitness

Imagine a single place where athletes come to engage in their sport, develop core skills, get medical attention when needed, and have state-of-the-art sports technology at the ready. It’s a place where the parents of young athletes have a place to relax, work out, shop, or grab a bite to eat while their kids play or practice. And it’s also a place where recreational players can come for pickup games or league games of almost any sport.

This mecca for amateur athletics is real, and it’s right here in Kansas City. The historic Kemper Arena received a $39 million makeover that included creating a second floor to accommodate a total of 12 basketball courts on 82,000 sq. ft. of hardwood; building a 350-meter indoor track; and opening up space for more than 40 vendors. The facility is now called the Hy-Vee Arena, and it celebrated its grand opening in October 2018.

A Kansas City Icon

The large white building rises stoically from the historic West Bottoms of Kansas City. Exposed trusses reach out from its lumbering profile, creating an exoskeleton that supports the structure and allows for pillar-free interior space. The building’s unique construction, completed in 1974, was considered revolutionary—and for decades it made Kemper Arena the premier event venue in Kansas City.

The iconic building has been the home to professional basketball, hockey, soccer, and arena football. It hosted the NCAA men’s and women’s Final Four basketball tournaments. Throngs of people watched hundreds of big rock and country concerts here. The American Royal utilized the space every year.

But after the Sprint Center arrived in Downtown Kansas City in 2007, big-name events migrated away from the West Bottoms. Kemper Arena became underutilized. And in 2011, the American Royal announced a proposal to demolish the big white building and replace it with a smaller event space.

Coincidentally, the same week the American Royal’s plan hit the news, some friends approached Steve Foutch and told him that if Kansas City wanted to host large youth tournaments, they needed an event space large enough to accommodate at least eight basketball courts. Foutch is the CEO of Kansas City-based Foutch Brothers LLC, a company that specializes in re-purposing historic buildings for residential and commercial use.

“We were already looking at some locations for a big basketball facility,” recalled Foutch, “when someone called me and asked, ‘Did you hear they’re trying to tear down Kemper? Can you try and figure out something that would save it?’ Serendipitously, those two things happened at the same time.”

As Foutch considered the possibilities, one more element—a personal one—came into play. As the parent of two young athletes, he had recently spent a lot of time thinking about how to help them strike a balance between developing their skills, staying healthy, and still enjoying being kids.

“That’s what lit the fire and made me think that maybe this could work,” said Foutch. “We’ve saved so many historic buildings. This was just another building—and I think maybe deep down I was looking for another challenge.”

If Foutch wanted a challenge, he certainly got one.

Six Years of Hurdles

“There were so many times we should have stopped and walked away from this,” said Foutch, recounting the six years that went into saving and transforming Kemper Arena. “It’s ironic that I was a hurdler on the track team in college—because every time a new hurdle was put up, we’d get over it… and then there was another one right there.”

Those hurdles included numerous city council meetings, public hearings, pushback from the American Royal and its backers, lawsuits, changes in tax-credit policy, and securing bank loans. But Foutch’s vision for the building proved more powerful, and more economical. Tearing down the building would cost the city $10 million. Keeping and re-purposing the historic building would open the door to $14 million in tax credits, as well as the potential for increased economic development in the West Bottoms. His plan gained the support of the Kansas City Council, and in February 2017 the city sold Kemper Arena to Foutch Brothers for $1.

The developer finally signed a contract with McCownGordon Construction in September 2017 and work on the project began, but then they hit another hurdle. “There was another major hiccup in funding, and we didn’t actually close on the bank loan until March 29, 2018,” said Foutch.

“I was sweating bullets for sure. We closed the deal with three hours left in the day before the sub-contractors were going to walk away.”

Despite that shaky start, the new Hy-Vee Arena hosted its first event—an international pickleball tournament—in September, ahead of its October grand opening.

Reimagining the Space

Steve Foutch built his career on bringing a business approach to architecture. He looks at the timeline, the engineering, the building’s original purpose and its potential for new uses. When he drives by an old school or warehouse, Foutch runs mental calculations for how many apartment units he could fit inside. He’s interested in the process and the economics of using a space to its full potential.

That approach has made Foutch Brothers successful developers, and it came in handy the first few times he toured Kemper Arena in 2012.

“I’d been into the building before for events, but I was always there as a spectator,” said Foutch. “But then I came into it with totally different eyes—as a business, as a physical structure, what can we do with this?”

One day, while studying photos he’d taken of the building, Foutch started pondering the event floor. Maxed out, it could fit four basketball courts. Then he considered, what if that lower half of the stadium was filled up with dirt, all the way up to the bottom of the suites? Well, that would give you a longer and wider floor that would fit eight basketball courts.

The historic Kemper Arena received a $39 million makeover that included 12 full-sized hardwood courts, 350m track, fitness, training, shopping, dining, gaming, and recovery all under one roof!

He continued to run calculations on the costs of building a second floor, and the return on investment for increasing the usable space. The final numbers were daunting, but to Foutch they made sense. The second floor would cost $6 million to construct, but it would also be the only venue of its kind anywhere in the area. It would make the Hy-Vee Arena an attractive venue for big youth tournaments.

When Foutch first explained the second-floor concept to Woody Carter, a retired Harlem Globetrotter who now serves as sales and marketing manager for Hy-Vee Arena, Carter was in disbelief. “How in the world?” he asked Foutch.

Foutch just laughed.

“He told me, you’ll just have to see it to believe it,” said Carter. “And that’s become part of my sales pitch to prospective events. I tell people, I can try to explain it and paint a picture over the phone, but until you stand in the middle of that floor and look around, you just won’t get the full effect.”

A Small City

On the surface, you would think the big headline for the Hy-Vee Arena is all that floorspace. Twelve basketball games can be run simultaneously. That space can accommodate 24 pickleball courts. Or it can be set up for wrestling, futsol, cheerleading, dance, and gymnastics.

The two floors may be the heart of the building, but what makes it truly unique is the utilization of the space around the floors. The old concourse and suites have been transformed into more than 40 vendor spaces, featuring dining, entertainment, retail, and services. The floor is there to give big tournaments a place to play, of course. But those amenities surrounding the two playing floors are there for the people who come to watch the tournaments—the parents and siblings.

“There’s no more boring 10-hour tournament sessions with parents sitting on the ground, maybe getting some nachos or a hot dog,” said Carter. “Instead, they can go shopping, or there are activities for younger siblings who get the wiggles.” Activities will include escape rooms, golf simulators, an arcade, and a fitness center.

Sports health and technology services are also available. For example, St. Luke’s Sports Medicine is on-site, offering injury evaluation and triage, as well as massage and compression therapy to help with recovery.

While the tournaments and big events keep Hy-Vee Arena humming during the weekends (all but six weekends in 2019 were already booked as of November 2018), the developers made sure the facility would stay busy during the week, as well. Long-term office tenants have set up shop in the building. In the future, the facility will offer co-working space.

But even during the workweek, the focus is on recreation. The facility is the new headquarters for KC Crew, an adult recreational sports league; and Midwest Adaptive Sports (MAS), a non-profit organization that provides adaptive recreational and competitive-sports opportunities to those with physical, cognitive, emotional, or behavioral challenges. Both organizations run programs at Hy-Vee Arena throughout the week.

“It’s been really difficult to find gym space in Kansas City,” said Matt Bollig, who heads up wheelchair basketball and youth sports for MAS. “Being in the Hy-Vee Arena has allowed us to take MAS to another level.”

Currently, youth and adult wheelchair basketball teams practice at the facility, and Bollig is hopeful to bring some big national wheelchair basketball tournaments to the arena.

“Being here has definitely brought us more attention and exposure,” said Bollig. “And who knows who will see our sign and be inspired by it.”

Luke Wade, founder of KC Crew, said Hy-Vee Arena has created a “one-stop shop for everything we need.” Since they started running leagues out of the arena in September, about 1,000 people each week have participated in KC Crew leagues Sunday through Thursday.

“This means a lot to our city,” said Wade. “You’ll see people playing pickup games over lunchtime. It’s really cool to see the adaptive sports, youth volleyball, pickleball… It’s really neat to see all different types of people out doing sports, from all walks of life.

“Once all of the vendors are up and running, it’s going to be amazing,” Wade added. “It’s becoming its own little ecosystem.”

A New Approach to Youth Sports

With all of the parts falling in place—the floor, the amenities, the tournaments, and the organizations to help get people in the door—Steve Foutch turns his attention to a larger mission, one that was the original inspiration for Hy-Vee Arena: reimagining youth sports.

“The sport is the carrot to get them here,” said Foutch. “Then, what else? What else makes their life whole? What else are they missing?”

Foutch is the father of a son in college, who currently runs track for UMKC; and a daughter in high school, who is working toward a rowing scholarship. Over the years, he’s navigated the waters of youth club sports—for example, watching his son compete in increasingly cutthroat and rigorous soccer programs. “I’ve watched, psychologically and physically what we’re doing to the youth,” said Foutch. “We’re pushing them harder and harder, younger and younger, thinking they’re all going to be pro athletes and get a free college education, and everything is win, win, win—and they’re only five years old!”

With Hy-Vee Arena, Foutch hopes to create a supportive community for parents and young athletes. It’s a community that might help parents avoid some of the mistakes Foutch feels he made with his own kids.

“Hopefully we’re sort of a parent to the parents as well, saying, ‘Slow up a little bit. Don’t talk to your kids like that. Don’t talk to the coaches like that. Let them do their thing.’

“We’ll get them the training they need,” added Foutch. “We’ll get them as far as they can, so we’re helping facilitate them on a more natural scale, and at a more logical speed.”
He suggests that athletes try activities that aren’t sport-specific, but will help develop core strength and skills. These include yoga, karate, and track. “There’s a lot of core skills in a karate class that kids need,” he said. “And then track teaches them how to run. And then you can go be a specialist in basketball or soccer—something that is a very detailed, technical thing—once you have the basics of your core strength.”

The Hy-Vee Arena also aims to be a space that will provide opportunities for athletes who might not otherwise have access to these kinds of resources.

“We know in the urban core there are a ton of kids who have a ton of talent—they just don’t have access to this. They don’t have the financial means to do it,” said Foutch. “So, we’re working with the city and others to see if we can bus them down here for after-school programs.”

Bringing big tournaments to Kansas City also provides an opportunity to shine a national spotlight on local talent, added Woody Carter. “There are a lot of teams and kids that should now be exposed to a bigger pool of talent,” he said. “We have some excellent teams here, but they can’t afford to travel. This brings teams from all over the country to them.”


All photos by Clayton Hotze / Hy-Vee Arena


About the Author

Kristi Mayo is the editor of REC Midwest. She can be reached at publisher@rec-midwest.com.