Working toward a new single-terminal KCI

Support for a new one-terminal design at Kansas City International Airport has been gaining momentum as engineering firm Burns & McDonnell proposes privately building and financing a new single terminal.
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Support for a new one-terminal design at Kansas City International Airport has been gaining momentum as engineering firm Burns & McDonnell proposes privately building and financing a new single terminal.

Dave Helling

Dave Helling: How a bitter 2004 battle could inform our present-day KCI debate

By Dave Helling

July 05, 2017 07:30 PM

Thirteen years ago this month, Kansas Citians were engaged in a bitter battle over construction of a new public building.

Supporters of the ballot proposal were adamant: The old building obviously needed to go. It was dark and unwelcoming. It was inconvenient and expensive to maintain. Earlier attempts at rehabilitation had been costly failures.

We’re falling behind other cities, boosters said, losing essential business as a result. And the new structure would be built without general taxpayer support — tourists would pay the cost, not Kansas Citians.

Opponents of the plan scoffed. Tourists would stay away because of the higher levies, they claimed, and the costs would be passed on to Kansas Citians.

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Additional business for the new building wasn’t guaranteed. Corporate threats to leave the existing facility were hollow, they argued.

And few Kansas Citians would use either building. A new facility would help Johnson Countians more than residents inside the city limits, opponents said.

The old structure enjoyed enormous sentimental support. It was once an architectural model for the nation.

The campaign was close and contentious. The proposed new facility trailed badly in early polling.

Kansas Citians liked the idea of a new building but said other needs should come first. A six-year discussion of the project had not changed many minds.

It took relentless campaigning from city officials to get voter approval that August, back in 2004.

By now, keen Kansas Citians will have guessed: The campaign involved the Sprint Center, proposed as a replacement for Kemper Arena in the West Bottoms.

Here’s why that history is important: There are many relevant similarities between the arena debate and the discussion of a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport.

Both involve 1970s-era structures beloved by many Kansas Citians, seen as perfectly serviceable public facilities. The fate of both buildings rested/rests in the hands of voters who might not use either facility.

This isn’t the place to debate all the merits of a new KCI terminal or to relitigate the Sprint Arena decision. But ask yourself this: After that bitter 2004 argument, is there anyone who now thinks the arena was a mistake?

Probably not. The arena has fallen short of some commitments — it still isn’t home to an NBA or NHL franchise — but it has provided a place to entertain millions of people in and around Kansas City while actually providing City Hall with extra cash from time to time. Not too bad.

It’s likely we’ll feel the same about a new KCI 10 or 15 years from now.

At a celebration last month for Southwest Airlines, Mayor Sly James made it clear he wants a new terminal built at KCI in the not-too-distant future, to carry the airport forward for the next 35 years. How to pay for that remains a burning questio


Remember: Kansas City didn’t replace Kemper because it was dark, or inconvenient, or outdated, or unfixable. It was all of those things at once. That’s why it was time for something new.

Much like KCI. In the short term, travelers and employees might be able to put up with one or two inconveniences in return for lower costs. When the terminal falls short in almost every important way, though, it’s time to construct something better.

A water main break Tuesday at the airport only reinforces that view.

We can’t know how downtown might have looked had the arena failed 13 years ago. We can say this: Had voters said no, we’d still be arguing about the issue.

The public spoke during a town hall Tuesday at Northland Cathedral to discuss the future of KCI.


And we know defeat of a new terminal at KCI won’t mean the end of that discussion. We’ll still argue and debate the airport and then try again, at a higher cost and with less flexibility a decade or so hence.

Not everyone believes the time has come to build a new terminal. Not everyone believed we needed a new arena, either.

But minds were changed in 2004. If the past is prologue, the same thing can be accomplished at KCI.