Girod envisions convention center, hotel, possibly medical facility as part of $300M gateway project at KU football stadium

photo by: Nick Krug

An aerial shot from the east of David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium in 2017.

A “gateway” project near the University of Kansas’ football stadium could cost more than $300 million, and university leaders are interested in a hotel/convention center and a significant health care presence on the site, KU’s chancellor said Thursday.

Major renovations to David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium would remain a centerpiece of any such project, but everything built around the stadium would be very significant too, KU Chancellor Douglas Girod said in a brief interview with the Journal-World on Thursday.

“It would be a very big project,” Girod said.

Girod said the project at 11th and Mississippi streets is also likely to include something else: new debt for Kansas Athletics. He said it is unlikely that donors and private development money will be able to fund the entire project

The new debt for Kansas Athletics would come at a time when the department’s future revenue streams are in question as conference realignment is actively underway in college athletics, creating concerns that the Big 12 Conference could become a second-tier type of conference that doesn’t produce media rights revenue at the same rates as it does today.

Girod, though, said he is concerned about KU’s future status in a top-tier athletic conference if it doesn’t undertake a project like the one envisioned for the northern edge of KU’s campus.

“Not doing it dictates an outcome,” Girod said. “You have to start there. We can choose not to do it, but we probably can anticipate what our long-term outcome will be in terms of where we do sit conference-wise.”

When asked about whether KU had made a determination that it was unlikely to remain in a top-tier conference without significant improvements to its football stadium, Girod expressed concerns that could be the case. He said it was clear KU’s successful men’s basketball program alone won’t be enough to secure KU’s spot in the future of college athletics.

“It is a football conversation right now,” Girod said of conference discussions. “We just won a national championship in basketball, but it is a football conversation, and that puts us at a disadvantage.”

The $300 million figure attached to the project is not a surprise, and it conceivably could go much higher. KU has listed about $300 million in football stadium improvements in its capital improvement plan for years. To add a convention center, hotel, medical businesses and other amenities presumably could add significantly to the total cost. Girod did not provide an upper-end estimate of what the project could cost, but he said that the $300 million figure was entirely possible, though he also said KU might look to do some of the project in phases.

Girod also clarified that KU currently envisions the project happening entirely on property that KU already owns, and that it wouldn’t include going north of the football stadium, which currently is a mix of single family homes and aged apartment buildings.

In comments to the Kansas Board of Regents on Thursday, Girod mentioned the grassy tailgate area that is near the corner of 11th and Mississippi streets as an area ripe for development.

“Through some preliminary work we feel there is a high probability that a convention center hotel, potentially medical facility and perhaps some others make sense on that corner as part of our re-do of the football stadium,” Girod told the board.

Girod noted the city of Lawrence had done a study of convention center possibilities in Lawrence dating back to 2015, and that KU has reviewed that work, while also commissioning a new economic development study. Indications are that the Lawrence economy could support a convention center, Girod said.

“It actually was an incredibly positive study, but they just didn’t think they had the bandwidth to pull it off,” Girod said of the city’s previous study about convention center possibilities in the community.

Girod did not elaborate on what type of medical facility KU is envisioning on the property. His comments, though, will spark speculation about the University of Kansas Health System gaining a greater presence in Lawrence.

The health system surrounding the KU-affiliated hospital has been one of the faster-growing health systems in the state, but it has a fairly limited physical presence in Lawrence. The KU hospital and LMH Health have been in strategic partnership discussions about how the two entities can work more closely together.

Girod said he expects one way the new project will be funded is through private developers paying to locate in the project. KU is conducting an economic feasibility study, in part, to show how much potential there is for business activity at the site. Girod believes the area is poised to become the new “front door” to the campus as KU opens a new welcome and visitors center next to the KU Alumni Center, which is located just up the hill from the football stadium.

KU’s strategic plan also envisions the university becoming a player in the business of hosting conferences and conventions. University leaders believe KU has space — ranging from the ballroom at the student union to lecture halls — that could host large meeting-based events. The Kansas Union’s meeting space is just up the hill from the football stadium, and The Oread hotel, which is in the process of becoming a Hilton-branded property, also is just up the hill from the 11th and Mississippi project site.

Girod did not say how much debt he believes Kansas Athletics may have to take on to complete its portion of the project. But Girod emphasized he intends for any new debt to be put on the books of Kansas Athletics Inc., rather than issued through the general university. He said he does not envision using state dollars or tuition dollars — which are the primary sources of funding for KU’s general operations — to fund any part of the project.

“We know we are going to have to take out some debt service for this, but we will try to limit that to the degree that we can, and focus on fundraising and private development,” Girod said.

Girod said he expects to provide another update to the Board of Regents in November, perhaps even asking the board to approve a project plan and scope, which is a state requirement for new KU building projects.


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