Let’s say you buy a house, a fixer-upper. You know it’s going to take some money to get it in shape, but you end up spending close to the purchase price. But now it’s a dream home, right?
Now let’s say, after all that money and time, your property is worth about a quarter of your investment.
That’s one way of looking at Johnson County’s purchase of the King Louie building, at 8788 Metcalf, in Overland Park.
The Johnson County leaders who pushed to make the buy were bullish on the idea that this dilapidated former bowling alley and ice rink could be refitted to become a major attraction. They wanted to move the Johnson County Museum here from its flood-prone little building in Shawnee. The plan was to make it into a national homage to suburban life.
The county bought King Louie at the tail end of 2011, for $1.95 million. That price included the building and the surrounding land. The county then spent another $1.6 million to seal off the interior from the elements, get rid of asbestos and remove lead paint.
Today, the building still sits empty, due in part to political headwinds that still swirl around the decision to buy a building without a clear use, at a time when the lingering effects of a recession were still cramping county services.
Almost a year ago, county commissioners considered selling the building, after there weren’t enough votes to issue bonds that would have funded its renovation. As part of that consideration, the county ordered an appraisal, which came back in August 2014 but has gone uncirculated since.
That appraisal pegs the property’s open-market value at $850,000.
Valbridge Property Advisors judged the property’s worth after assuming the demolition of the ski-chalet-style building. The appraisal said the best and most profitable use for the property would be to build new residences on the nearly 6 acres of land.
So the county got a lousy deal on King Louie? Depends on whom you ask.
“I think it’s a matter of perspective,” says Olathe Commissioner Michael Ashcraft, a longtime critic of the King Louie acquisition. “I have had reservations about expenditures all along. You would have to have a grand debate on that.”
The county did not order an appraisal when it bought King Louie. Instead, it consulted with a real-estate broker.
Joe Waters, director of facilities for Johnson County, tells The Pitch that it’s not typical for the county to get an appraisal before purchasing a building.
“The assessment that was done by the real-estate broker, who was conducting the search for us and advised us on that purchase at the time, concluded that it [$1.95 million] was a very good price,” Waters says.
Ed Eilert, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners and a steady advocate for the King Louie purchase, agrees.
“If we were to be redeveloping and the building scraped off, that’s that anticipated value [$850,000] we would be looking at,” Eilert said at a December board meeting. “For our purposes, the building is significant and important and was a reasonable purchase.”
The appraisal notes that interested buyers other than the county balked at trying to reuse the existing structure, citing its atypical design and its outdated architecture. Those elements, the appraisal says, make it impossible to readapt the facility for indoor sports.
Photos in the report show standing water on the floors, and the appraisal also notes the presence of broken roof drains that leak water underground and the existence of mold in some of the restrooms.
Still, some county leaders remain optimistic that King Louie’s structure — fashioned after Googie architecture that was popular for a time after World War II but faded in the late 1960s — can be saved. The latest proposal for doing that involves a Johnson County Parks & Recreation theater and another arts-related space inside the building. That proposal also still includes the Johnson County Museum, as well as an advance-voting site. (The Enterprise Center, a county-supported business incubator once considered a King Louie tenant, is out of the mix.)
Advance voting, which had previously taken place at Metcalf South Mall, a few blocks south of King Louie, has been hailed as one of the foremost reasons to remodel the building. It was the first thing that County Manager Hannes Zacharias mentioned when presenting that latest proposal.
But Johnson County Election Commissioner Brian Newby says installing advance voting inside King Louie would be, at most, a minor help for his department. And he tells The Pitch that he was first told of the idea to put advance voting in King Louie roughly an hour before the Board of County Commissioners was first publicly told of the idea to buy the building, in 2011.
“It wasn’t like anyone consulted with me back in the day,” Newby says. (Or later, for that matter. Newby wasn’t invited to speak during December’s board meeting, when the newest King Louie idea went before commissioners.)
Advance-voting locations have typically been pop-up leases around the county when elections draw near, similar to the seasonal Halloween shops that ink short-term tenancies in strip malls every autumn. Newby says moving one advance-voting location to a permanent spot would save him the hassle of negotiating another lease (and about $25,000 a year). But he would still have to find leases for as many as three other stations.
Zacharias told commissioners that the latest idea would give Johnson County a true arts culture that’s lacking in the metro’s wealthiest county. He pointed out that other places in Kansas have had arts centers for years. “Manhattan, Lawrence, Salina — Hays, for heaven’ sakes,” he said.
But dreams come at a cost. County staffers project that getting King Louie ready for this newest idea would cost $22 million, a figure that includes the sunk costs of the building’s acquisition and early remediation. The county would issue bonds to finance the project, which means that it would pay $1.5 million in debt service annually for 20 years — growing Johnson County’s overall cost to $30 million.
The proposal goes back to the commissioners for a final vote as early as February. King Louie has split the board the past two years, with a one-vote majority nixing any more money spent on the building.
Steve Klika, an Overland Park commissioner who has been vocally skeptical in the past, is a swing vote on the project, having signaled that he’s warming to this newest plan.
Ashcraft still seems unconvinced by the heft of King Louie’s financial obligation, particularly given other ways that he says the county could spend taxpayer money.
“Quite honestly, I look at all the needs our community has, and while I respect their effort and presentations, I think $1.5 million [in annual debt service] can be spent much more effectively and have a much more significant impact on core services that we should be doing, that we should be considering, but we don’t,” Ashcraft says.