‘Not an if project; it is a yes project,’ KU leaders say of football stadium upgrade, events venue near 11th and Mississippi streets

photo by: Matt Tait

The outside of David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium is illuminated for KU's 2020 season opener against Coastal Carolina on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020.

Updated at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday

University of Kansas leaders said Wednesday they are fully committed to a project that would significantly upgrade KU’s football stadium and add a new venue near the stadium to host entertainment events and conferences.

“This project is not an ‘if’ project; it is a ‘yes’ project,” Sean Lester, deputy director of KU Athletics, told a crowd of about 75 design professionals who gathered for a meeting Wednesday morning. “We will move this forward.”

The meeting was for design professionals who are interested in submitting proposals to become the lead designer for a new gateway project near 11th and Mississippi streets that the Journal-World reported on Tuesday.

The basic details KU officials have released as part of KU’s request for proposals from design firms state the project would provide an “upgraded home” for Kansas football, but it also lists a host of other uses that could be part of a project. Those include: “A multi-purpose year-round venue which may incorporate conference or entertainment capabilities, retail, dining, health care services, or other facilities that support economic development and the University’s academic mission.”

Wednesday’s meeting was light on new details about the potential gateway project, but was heavy on conviction that the project will become a reality.

“KU leadership has never been vested so much in a project like this ever before,” said Mark Reiske, KU’s director of facilities planning and development. “From the top down the university of Kansas is vested in this project. This isn’t just an exercise to get some pretty pictures. We have done that before. We have done it a lot of times before.”

When asked by the design firms, KU leaders, though, said they do not yet have an estimated budget for the project, a construction timeline, nor do they have commitments in place for funding.

But an outside consultant who has been hired by Kansas Athletics and KU Endowment to provide day-to-day leadership on the project, said KU leadership has a solid plan to secure the funding.

“A funding model has been built, and we are working over the next six months to get that,” said Chris Nations, an executive with Nations Group, an Arizona-based firm that touts its ability to turn “athletic facilities into experiences.”

Nations didn’t provide additional details on that funding model. However, KU leaders have presented previous information and thoughts about a stadium upgrade project. KU has consistently kept stadium renovations in its official five-year capital improvement plan, which is approved each year by the Kansas Board of Regents. The current plan, approved this summer, includes $350 million worth of projects for KU’s football stadium.

However, getting a project on the capital improvement plan and getting it built have been two different things. KU has had several campaigns to raise funds for football stadium upgrades, but has failed to start the major project as the team continued to struggle in the win-and-loss column.

The idea of upgrading the stadium — which opened in 1921 and is generally considered one of the oldest in college football — has been a subject of increasing speculation as universities across the country look to improve their portfolios after the Big Ten’s recent expansion created new hopes or worries of conference realignment.

The $350 million price tag in KU’s comprehensive plan might provide a sense of how large the project could be, but it also may be an underestimate, as the CIP project hasn’t necessarily contemplated a multipurpose events venue.

That venue is a newer idea. But as the Journal-World has reported, KU leaders have been touting the idea of hosting more conferences and events on the KU campus as a way to generate additional revenue for the university.

KU is working more closely with the city of Lawrence’s convention and visitors bureau, and KU recently has hired its own staff to manage and more fully vet the potential of increased events, conferences and conventions on campus.

In the state of Kansas’ recently approved budget, there is $75 million earmarked for university projects that can spur economic development in the state. However, those funds require a university to raise $3 for every $1 that it accesses from the state grant program. It is unclear whether KU’s funding plan involves accessing that grant money, but Girod previously has told the Journal-World KU was studying projects where the money could be used.

“There are a couple of projects I think we can do that with,” Girod said in an April interview with the Journal-World. “We are looking at what kind of scope we would be able to do projects at the university. Of course, they want big impact, economic development type of projects. We’re excited about that opportunity because I think the higher education institutions are some of the biggest economic drivers in the state.”

In an Aug. 19 interview with the Journal-World, KU Athletic Director Travis Goff said KU believes there is good potential for multiple uses at the stadium site, but didn’t provide additional details on what that may look like.

“The part that isn’t yet clear is all the incredible potential that we have around what does it mean to be multi-use,” Goff said in that interview. “We don’t know because we shouldn’t know precisely. We need others to help define that and those others can help fulfill the breadth of this broader vision.”

Goff, though, said in the interview that he thinks KU is “trending in an incredible way toward a vision that we’ve never had here.”

Wednesday’s meeting did not provide any new details about how large of an area KU is looking at near the 11th and Mississippi intersection. That intersection is basically at the northeast corner of the entrance to KU’s football stadium. The area to the north of the intersection is densely developed with older homes, while the area to the east has been developed in recent years with the multistory HERE apartment complex. However, there are patches of open space, surface parking lots and outdoor practice fields near the stadium that potentially could be available for development of additional amenities and structures.

KU intends to take proposals from design firms until Sept. 13. Nations, the consultant on the project, told interested companies that KU was going to move ahead on an aggressive timeline for the project.

“We are not here to study the project again,” Nations said. “We are here to start the project.”

— Journal-World Sports Editor Matt Tait contributed to this report.

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