WyCo Considers $2M Share in West Bottoms Bridge Entertainment/Trail Project

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A rendering of the renovated Rock Island Bridge project proposed by Flying Truss. (Image by Gould Evans architects)

By Kevin Collison

It’s show me the money time for an ambitious proposal to convert the old Rock Island Railroad Bridge over the Kaw River into a West Bottoms recreation and entertainment destination.

Flying Truss LLC, the developer behind the concept, has reached a tentative agreement with the Unified Government of Wyandotte County for $2 million in funding toward what’s estimated to be the $3 million first phase of the project.

The recent signing of a letter of intent for the UG funding was disclosed Wednesday at a luncheon of the Downtowners. Michael Zeller of Flying Truss joined UG/KCK Mayor David Alvey to brief the civic group on the project.

The proposed project would reopen the 1905 railroad bridge as a recreational trail link and renovate it to add several restaurants and bars. The concept has garnered extensive  publicity, but few details have been discussed to date as to how it would be funded.

The Rock Island Bridge was completed in 1905 and used to transport livestock across the Kaw River during Kansas City’s meatpacking heyday.

Alvey said the $2 million from the UG would come from a 20-year general obligation bond that would be repaid by revenues from a community improvement district and a tax-increment financing district encompassing anticipated new development.

“It has to be a public-private and philanthropic partnership,” the mayor said.

At this point however, no spinoff development is in the works for the area near the bridge that could generate tax revenues through a TIF District.

Bill Haw Sr., who revived the nearby Livestock Exchange Building and owns much of the developable property near the bridge, said he’s had some preliminary inquiries from apartment and hotel developers, but nothing definite.

“My hope it it will be either residential or commercial and office,” Haw said. “As for a timetable, whenever they come to my door and make a proposal.”

An ambitious master plan plan that includes recreational uses and development including potential residential and a hotel is part of the Rock Island Bridge proposal. (Map by Gould Evans)

Alvey said he plans to brief members of the Unified Government board of commissioners in the coming weeks about the bond plan with a potential vote in February. The UG funding also would have up to a $600,000 guarantee by Flying Truss for any revenue shortfalls.

The mayor added the county has not done a feasibility study yet for the endeavor.

As for Flying Truss, Zeller said he is working to raise $1 million in private funding.

“We are raising $1 million in private capital through the sale of equity,” he said in an email. “Some foundations are interested in enhancing the public spaces with gardens, lighting, possibly a small museum.”

Should the $3 million come together, Zeller said work could begin by late next summer with  an opening in spring 2021.

In their presentation to the luncheon audience, both the developer and mayor emphasized the untapped potential of bringing more people and activity to the Kaw River where it flows  through the West Bottoms.

Alvey said his city has built a recreational trail along much of the west side of the river, and the bridge would allow a connection to a trail planned on the east bank that would link with the Riverfront Heritage Trail in Kansas City.

The Rock Island Bridge is currently closed except for special tours.

“The first thing is to activate this as a trail and get people hiking and biking along there,” the mayor said.

It also could be linked to the Greenline recreational trail around downtown proposed by developer Vince Bryant.

The old bridge has a unique geography and ownership background. It originally was built during the heyday of the Kansas City stockyards and meatpacking industry, and actually is located in Kansas City, Kan.

At some point, the City of Kansas City, Missouri took ownership when it was envisioned as a link to potential parking for the nearby former Kemper Arena, now the Hy-Vee Arena. While that plan didn’t pan out, the bridge ownership remains with KCMO

Zeller said he has a 25-year lease agreement with KCMO for the bridge with a 25-year renewal option.

The Flying Truss redevelopment plan calls for cantilevers to be built along the bridge to accommodate four restaurants and provide space for events. Restrooms are planned at the trailhead as well as parking on the east bank.

Zeller said Slaps BBQ and Papa Keno’s Pizzeria have signed letters of intent to be tenants on the bridge. He added the owner of the Hy-Vee Arena also is considering running a zipline from the top of the arena across the 700-foot bridge.

The revived bridge would become a new entertainment destination in the West Bottoms and encourage more recreational use in the area, both on the relatively tranquil river and the planned trails, Zeller said.

“We might be the only city in America that hasn’t figured out how to get their arms around their riverfront,” he told the audience.

Flying Truss envisions renovating the old bridge into an entertainment destination with restaurants and a bar. (Image by Gould Evans)

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