Published February 17th, 2023 at 9:44 AM
When Helmut Jahn designed the unique, external framework supporting the roof at the former Kemper Arena 50 years ago, it’s doubtful he imagined it hosting an aerial park someday.
But that’s just what Brad McDonald has in mind for the renowned German architect’s “space frame” at what’s now the Hy-Vee Arena.
“We plan to make it the largest urban aerial park in the country,” McDonald said. “You’ll be able to put on a harness and take on 70 different obstacles.
“Once you hook in to the system, you’re free to roam.”
And while you’re at it, McDonald plans to hook up four ziplines off the northwest corner of the 120-foot tall arena roof that will allow you to zip over the Kansas (Kaw) River parallel to the renovated Rock Island Bridge being redeveloped as an entertainment district.
The zip lines over the Kaw in the West Bottoms will be the first in the nation to cross a state border. The arena is in Missouri, the river is in Kansas.
“We’re extremely excited,” he said.
McDonald, who opened his 200-acre Zip KC park in Bonner Springs about nine years ago, is working with Mike Zeller, the developer of the old railroad bridge, and Steve Foutch, the owner of Hy-Vee Arena on his high-flying endeavor.
“We’ve been looking for a partner like that for a long time,” Foutch said. “The building is so unique.
“With Mike doing the bridge, it all came together. There will be nothing like that in the world. An aerial park is a great idea.”
McDonald has been working with Zeller for about a year to team up on his Rock Island Bridge project. In addition to the ziplines, he plans to manage the rental program for canoes and kayaks at the repurposed bridge along with bike rentals.
The bridge also will serve as a crossing for a 17-mile network of trails along the Kaw levees being developed by the Unified Government of Wyandotte County. The UG is providing $2.4 million for the $12 million bridge project.
McDonald said his plan ultimately calls for people to be able to do float trips from his Zip KC facility in Bonner Springs to what’s being called the Kansas Waterfront development. His suburban facility is located about nine miles upriver on the Kaw.
The first phase, including the ziplines, rentals and at least initial float trip excursions, are expected to coincide with the March 2024 opening of the Rock Island Bridge by Zeller and his development entity, Flying Truss.
The development of the aerial park is expected to continue building over time.
“We’ll continue to keep building on it,” McDonald said. “We’re thinking about a zipline roller coaster, bungee jumping, we’ll listen to what our customers want to do.”
Foutch reopened the Hy-Vee Arena more than four years ago as a $39 million recreational complex. In a frustrating side note, the facility is still referred to as Kemper Arena on highway signs despite the huge public-private investment.
He reinvented the former Kemper by dividing it in half, inserting a second floor in its middle large enough to accommodate eight basketball courts. The original floor below includes four basketball courts.
The former seating bowl was sliced in half as well, with 5,000 seats on the upper level and 3,500 on the lower. A five-lane, 350-meter track rings the top of the arena bowl as well.
Foutch said the external framework supporting the roof is more than adequate to handle an aerial park.
“It’s made to hold up that massive roof and snow build up as well as wind,” he said. “Having ziplines, ropes and cables with humans is not that much of a load.”
Flatland contributor Kevin Collison is the founder of CityScene KC, an online source for downtown news and issues.