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Clock Ticking for Potential Steamboat Arabia Departure

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2 minute read

By Kevin Collison

The City Market is looking for proposals for the space now occupied by the Steamboat Arabia Museum, but its skipper says he’s not ready to shove off yet.

“We have three years to figure it out, we don’t have a Plan B,” said David Hawley, the owner of the museum chock-full of artifacts salvaged from an 1856 steamboat wreck.

The three years refers to Nov. 13, 2026. That’s when the Arabia’s lease expires for the space it’s occupied since 1991.

The City Market Oversight Committee has issued a request for ideas to use the prominent location anchoring the east side of the Market.

“If someone in the community has an idea, than the oversight committee would like to review all of them,” said Justin Cottrell of KC Commercial Realty Group, the firm that manages the City Market for the city.

The Steamboat Arabia Museum has operated in the City Market since 1991.

The oversight committee’s solicitation is open to repurposing the existing site or building an addition. Among the ideas it suggests are potential hotel, retail, apartment or office space as well as public parking in the area below the existing museum.

The important caveat is the historic 1940s brick structure on either side of the current Steamboat Arabia glass entrance atrium would have to remain intact.

“The committee wants to keep the original 1940s structure on the first floor,” Cantrell said.

The existing footprint of the building is 11,480 square feet on the main floor with an additional 36,000 square feet of subterranean space, according to the committee solicitation.

Cottrell said a potential developer could expand the existing space to accommodate new uses, and could build an addition as tall as six-stories. The entrance atrium to the museum could be demolished, too.

Proposals are expected to be submitted by mid-January. Whatever recommendation the oversight committee makes would have to be reviewed and approved by the City Council.

Hawley plans to submit a proposal to keep the Steamboat Arabia Museum at its current location.

He also wants to enlarge the attraction to display new artifacts the museum plans to unearth when it begins excavating a second wreck its found, an 1840s Missouri River steamboat called the Malta.

“We’ve been working on a redesign of the building to make it larger for for the Arabia and Malta and expand parking,” Hawley said. “We’re going to present something to the city at some point. We’re not done yet, but close.”

The artifacts salvaged from the Arabia are a snap shot of frontier life before the Civil War. (Photo from Steamboat Arabia Museum website)

Hawley estimated it would require an additional 35,000 square feet to display the Malta artifacts. If the entire boat was to be resurrected, something he believes may be possible, much more space would be needed.

He also would like to build a five- to six-level garage to provide 500 additional parking spaces for museum visitors.

But as has been the case for several years now, identifying how his ambitious plan would be paid for remains a challenge. An effort a year ago to move the Steamboat Arabia Museum to St. Charles collapsed when city officials balked at the $50 million price tag.

Hawley believes federal and state money could be available to help fund his expanded concept for the Steamboat Arabia Museum and the remainder raised privately. At this point, no definite financial proposal exists.

The museum owner acknowledges the vagueness about the Arabia’s future has been confusing to many people.

“Throughout the fog of uncertainty, the city put together a committee to see what ideas there may be if the Arabia does leave,” Hawley said.

“What is confusing to people is that the Arabia has been a popular attraction for many years and there’s a lot of people not happy with the possibility of us leaving.

“Over the past couple years we’ve talking about alternative sites, but no one has the money to build big buildings.

“Throughout all that, nobody came from Kansas City ask as ‘how can we keep you?'”

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