Johnson County Commission votes to pull funding from King Louie building, then quickly changes its mind

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King Louie gets a reprieve
  • King Louie gets a reprieve

Johnson Countians who want their elected commissioners to get out of the bowling-alley renovation business almost got their wish this month.

In fact, they did get that wish - for about 10 minutes.

In a remarkable Board of County Commissioners meeting August 8, a majority voted to pull $7 million in funding for improvements to the King Louie building (8788 Metcalf) in Overland Park. It was an unexpected development during an otherwise dry discussion about county finances.

Commissioners in 2011 sealed the deal to buy the dilapidated King Louie building ("Bowling for Dollars," June 20), the ski-lodge-style former home of strikes, gutter balls and couples' ice skating for generations of suburban youngsters. At that time, it paid $1.95 million to buy the structure, and committed another $1.6 million to keeping rain and rodents out.

All but one county commissioner insisted at the time that it was a great buy, even as there were questions about spending the money to pick up a blighted facility when the county was cutting staff and thinking about shuttering libraries. And ever since, the county has been trying to figure out just what to do with the building.

One idea involves moving the Johnson County Museum from its faraway site in north Shawnee. Another would plop an advance-voting center there. Lenexa's Enterprise Center of Johnson County has also considered a move to King Louie.

At one point, the county entertained the concept of making the space the National Museum of Suburbia, an attraction that would charge visitors admission to view a detailed replication of the environment just outside the building. (That dream fell by the wayside earlier this year.)

New commissioners have been elected since the county bought King Louie, and some of them are unsure why the purchase happened in the first place - perhaps none more than Steve Klika.

Klika was the star of the August 8 show. He made a motion to yank $7 million from the county's capital-improvement program earmarked for making interior improvements to King Louie and devote the funds instead to a new Johnson County Courthouse. That $150 million - $200 million project is something that county officials have sought for more than a decade but haven't been able to figure out how to finance without increasing taxes.

"We keep dumping good money after bad into the existing courthouse," Klika said.

Ed Eilert, board chairman, reiterated his stance that the King Louie acquisition was a good deal for the county.

"I think it would be a mistake, a major mistake, to forgo this property and not proceed with the planned improvements," Eilert said.

Ed Peterson, a longtime commissioner from Fairway who is usually a voice of reason among his peers, said he wished that there had been a clearer plan for King Louie when the county bought it.

"An opportunity came up at a very attractive price, and the opportunity was there for a limited time," said Peterson, who supported the King Louie purchase. "In retrospect, it would have been convenient and nice to have been able to formulate a fully developed plan for how we would use the facility. The opportunity didn't allow us to develop that kind of plan."

But that opportunity, which arrived in November 2011, had a short fuse. King Louie's previous owner wanted the sale to close before the end of that year, for tax purposes - which gave the county less than two months to study, consider and vote on the deal.

In other words, the county's planning was limited because the commissioners wanted to help a private citizen with his taxes.

Nancy Mays, a spokeswoman with Johnson County, disputes this characterization. She says in a statement e-mailed to The Pitch on September 3 that Johnson County Commissioners had been vetting the King Louie purchase in closed sessions as far back as July 2011. She says commissioners did not time the purchase the building for the benefit of the private seller. "Purchase negotiations are not conducted in public because that would put the County - and therefore the taxpayers - at a disadvantage," Mays writes.

Despite Eilert's and Peterson's protestations of Klika's plan to move $7 million away from King Louie, a majority of commissioners (Klika, Jason Osterhaus, John Toplikar and Michael Ashcraft) approved Klika's idea.
That vote annoyed Eilert and his colleague Jim Allen.

Allen, a former Shawnee mayor, reminded the commission that Johnson County has a history "of doing things right," before pointing out that the Johnson County Museum was being allowed to languish in a flood-prone old building that has a mold problem. Then he took a swipe at the four commissioners who had just approved the defunding of King Louie.

"The thing that's kind of ironic is, there's three of us up here that are former mayors of this county, and us three have a lot of experience as elected officials. And for whatever reason, the three people who come from city government and have been chief elected officials of a city - maybe there's a different perspective or whatever, but I think it's unique the three people who supported this are three former mayors in this county and have a long history of serving the public," Allen said.

His political experience questioned, Klika seemed to lose some of his resolve. He stammered a bit and fidgeted with his fingers, particularly once he learned that most of the $7 million planned for King Louie would have come from the county issuing debt. Meaning: Most of that $7 million wasn't going to be cash that it could pull from one place to another.

After some discussion - and some prodding by Eilert - Klika asked the commissioners to vote again on the idea that he had brought up. He added that his decision to reconsider his vote was with the understanding that future courthouse funding would "continue to be at the table." Whatever that means.

In the end, the commission voted to nix the vote taken 10 minutes prior. Klika this time voted with Eilert, Peterson and Allen.

Toplikar, Osterhaus and Ashcraft voted against it. Again. And they must have wondered what they'd just seen.

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