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Steamboat Arabia Owner Talks About Shoving Off to St. Charles

'Still Haven't Wrapped My Head Around That'

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Above image credit: A depiction of the Arabia sinking in 1856, its museum has hit some shoals in the City Market as well over the years. (Courtesy | Steamboat Arabia Museum website)

David Hawley, the owner of the Steamboat Arabia Museum, says St. Charles officials are wondering why Kansas City is allowing them to lure his top tourism draw away.

“St. Charles is looking at this and saying, ‘What’s wrong with Kansas City? Why are they turning up their noses at this?’” he said.

But he acknowledges his museum has had challenges at the City Market since it opened in 1991 as the first major tenant in a big renovation project there.

Shortly afterward, the city allowed a Chinese restaurant and food market to locate above his collection of historic artifacts salvaged from the steamboat that sank in the Missouri River near here in 1856.

“The floor above wasn’t waterproof and its water tanks would leak into the collection,” he said. “The workers were even chopping up fish on the floor and guts and saltwater came into the space.”

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

When the city refused to relocate the businesses, the Hawley family filed a lawsuit and the judge ruled in their favor, saying no water-related tenants could occupy the space above the museum.

Then there were rock concerts.

“I love music and I’ve played in a band, but they brought in stages and speakers as big as a refrigerator,” Hawley said. “It was literally shaking the building and concrete was falling from the ceiling, nearly breaking dishes.”

So the concerts ended.

Hawley is unapologetic about standing up for the museum.

“I’m here to defend this collection,” he said. “When someone says deal with the water, that doesn’t matter or if it sounds like a thunderstorm for six hours, don’t worry, I say no.”

David Hawley, Steamboat Arabia Museum.
David Hawley, owner of Steamboat Arabia Museum.

The news the Steamboat Arabia Museum has signed a letter of intent to relocate to St. Charles has worried his patrons, but it’s tough to get someone locally in power to comment.

Neither City Manager Brian Platt or Kathy Nelson, head of VisitKC, the regional tourism organization, could be reached for comment. The manager of the City Market, KC Commercial Realty, said they couldn’t discuss the lease.

Former City Manager Troy Schulte, who served 10 years at the city before becoming Jackson County administrator in 2019, recalls conversations with the Hawleys about the future of the museum.

“We never got down to serious brass tacks,” Schulte said.

“They were looking for a larger facility and I had some pushback from the City Market advisory committee that maybe their space could be repurposed.”

The former city manager said there was a clash of interests, with some tenants wanting concerts to return and perhaps the museum space be leased to tenants that would bring in more customers and business to the market.

“We had a push-pull from what the museum needs and the tenants needs,” he said.

Schulte said there were preliminary discussions about relocating the museum to the riverfront, but no solid numbers or plans were ever presented. He was unaware of any public-private initiative pitching a new home for the Arabia.

The Steamboat Arabia Museum does pay rent for its space, although Schulte noted it’s a “favorable” rate. He added the big water wheel that greets visitors entering the museum space is owned by the city.

The paddle wheel at the entrance of the Steamboat Arabia Museum.
Former City Manger Troy Schulte said the paddle wheel at the entrance of the Steamboat Arabia Museum is owned by the city. (Kevin Collison | CityScene)

Hawley said the City Market wasn’t going to be a long-term solution for his facility anyway. Besides the occasional tension with fellow tenants, parking was difficult for his visitors, many of whom wanted to come on the weekends when the Market is its busiest.

There also was likely not to be the additional space he’s seeking 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.

One idea that’s been floated is the possibility of relocating the museum to the American Royal space in the West Bottoms should negotiations fall through with St. Charles. That city has six months to reach a development agreement with Hawley.

The American Royal’s sprawling facility, which is owned by the city, totals 800,000 square feet of indoor space including the 56,700-square-foot Hale Arena.

The American Royal is planning to relocate is operations to western Wyandotte County and has purchased a site in Village West. That ambitious plan, however, has not moved forward since the American Royal acquired the land in 2019.

“We are continuing operations at the American Royal and have not had any discussions about the Steamboat Arabia Museum,” said John Baccala, a city spokesperson.

Hawley estimated a new museum facility big enough to house the Arabia and Malta collections as well as a gift shop and other amenities, would be about 80,000 square feet. The cost could be about $50 million.

Entrance of the Steamboat Arabia Museum
The Steamboat Arabia Museum has operated in the City Market for about 30 years. (Kevin Collison | CityScene)

As to whether the museum would contribute financially to a new facility, Hawley said they would do what they could.

“If we were rich folks, I could write the check, but we’re not rich folks,” he said. “There’s a limit to what we could do.”

He did confess to being nervous about the potential of relocating his museum to St. Charles.

“Kansas City is my home and this is where I call home,” he said. “We tried and tried, I can’t think of too many people I haven’t talked to.

“It all came back to money and the city didn’t have money for such things. I also extended my search to the private side.

“I can’t think of anybody who hasn’t said we love having you here, that we’re good for the city. It’s been a real fixture in Kansas City for many years.

“When you talk about relocating, I still haven’t wrapped my head around that.”

Flatland contributor Kevin Collison is the founder of CityScene KC, an online source for downtown news and issues.

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