Johnson County got a deal on King Louie. Turning it into a national suburbia museum won't be a bargain 

click to enlarge King_Louie_Bowling_Ally_Sabrina_Staires_6.2013_5134.jpg

Photo by Sabrina Staires

Mindi Love has an encyclopedic memory of Johnson County's history. Off the top of her head, she can say what year Country Club Plaza developer J.C. Nichols completed his studies at the old Olathe High School.

As she leads a tour through the narrow corridors of the Johnson County Museum of History's cramped Shawnee house, she summons facts about Johnson County and offers context for its suburban past, from the time it was settled through the post–World War II development boom that would eventually make it one of the country's most affluent counties.

Some exhibits in the museum are generic — the faux raspberries and potatoes that demonstrate the once-agrarian nature of Johnson County. Some are sobering — the exhibit that covers deed restrictions, which sought to keep out blacks and Jews and Syrians in some of Johnson County's developing neighborhoods unless they were there as servants.

Love has been the director of the Johnson County Museum since 2000, and for all of that time she has worked in its 19,000-square-foot building at 6305 Lackman Road. It's not as easy to spot from the road as the nearby Target-anchored shopping development, off Shawnee Mission Parkway and Interstate 435, but it attracts about 30,000 visitors a year.

Many of those museumgoers are children, whose smaller size is an advantage here. Exhibits line hallways not much wider than those found in an average residence.

"You can't give a tour to a large group of people," Love says. "Can you imagine a group of 90 third-graders in here?"

On the day she leads The Pitch through the museum, her voice competes with the din of children clattering through various interactive exhibits designed to give young people a simulation of 20th-century suburban life.

But the museum has more problems than a high decibel level. For one, it's largely static. Its main feature is an exhibit called "Seeking the Good Life," which was erected in the late 1990s after a fundraising campaign. It remains mostly unchanged.

The gallery devoted to rotating exhibitions is a space the size of an average home's dining room. At the moment, it's taken up by a show of editorial cartoons by Bob Bliss, of the defunct Johnson County Sun newspaper. (One of them takes a jab at Johnson County's bus system, depicting a Jo bus with two people in it and the caption "The Jo's ridership doubles!")

It also has flooding problems. The building's foundation kept rainwater out during a modest May 30 storm, but a 2009 downpour damaged exhibits and records in the basement. That event accelerated the county's search for a new Johnson County Museum space.

Love may be on her way to getting that wish, if the county remakes the museum in the old King Louie West building, in Overland Park.

Johnson County bought the dormant bowling alley in 2011, and the proposed budget for the 2014 fiscal year contemplates spending more than $5 million to ready the dilapidated building for use. The museum is calling for another $5 million in the following year's budget to remake King Louie in the museum's image.

The Johnson County Museum Foundation also wants to raise $2 million for new exhibits in time for a Johnson County Museum opening at King Louie in 2017.

That's a big goal for a small foundation.

The nonprofit fundraising arm of the Johnson County Museum has raised $23,000–$38,000 a year since 2007, according to the most recent tax records available.

Love says those records don't include grants that flow through the county books. One such grant: a $120,000 stipend to study a 2011 interpretive plan for what a future museum would look like. Another study was done to explore the feasibility of raising $2 million in time to get the museum moved into King Louie by 2017.

That study purports to describe how the foundation might grow from a five-figure fundraiser to a seven-figure one. Larry Meeker, president of the foundation, declined to share that study with The Pitch. He says: "The bottom line is, we've settled on a very doable plan for moving in, building a base for further fundraising starting with a base of $2 million to freshen things up, get us moved in [to King Louie] and, if all goes well there, begin the fundraising for expanding the fundraising."

The expanded fundraising that Meeker is talking about would move the foundation toward a much bigger goal: Putting together another concept museum that backers want at King Louie, the National Museum of Suburbia and Suburban Policy Forum.

The museum would pay homage to the phenomenon of suburban sprawl, cul-de-sacs, The Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan, and other testaments to the out-migration from urban centers.

To do that — and to develop a museum that may have to sustain itself — the museum would have to raise almost $10 million on its own.

The Johnson County Museum today receives more than $600,000 a year from the county to support its operations.

"I'm firmly convinced, no doubt in my mind whatsoever, that this is a good idea," Meeker tells The Pitch. "That it is something that will be acted upon at some point in the future, here or somewhere else."

Others don't envision a Johnson County–based national suburbia museum as a slam dunk.

"If activities can be fully funded by the private sector, that's good," says Johnson County Chairman Ed Eilert. "I think it's a concept that, if it were to happen, needs a lot more work. I hate to discourage somebody who is thinking outside of the box. There are realities to making those kinds of concepts come to pass. It's going to be very, very difficult."


Eilert insists that Johnson County didn't buy King Louie to house a national museum of suburbia.

But the county's decision to buy the property at 8788 Metcalf raised eyebrows among those who pay attention to Johnson County politics.

Built in 1959, the 70,000-square-foot King Louie is the sort of structure that local officials call, perhaps euphemistically, "iconic."

Its architecture, then and now, seems more like a ski chalet in Loveland, Colorado, than a bowling alley. But, with its dozens of lanes and its ice-skating rink, the place was a popular suburban destination for decades, until it fell on hard times in the late 2000s.

The building was owned by Western Development Co., a Shawnee real-estate entity controlled by John Mitchell, who lives near the Country Club Plaza. By the end of its life as a teen hangout, the building was riddled with codes violations, ranging from an assortment of electrical hazards to frozen sprinkler pipes to chicken wire covering exterior windows. It closed for business in 2009 and went up for sale.

Not long after, Johnson County staffers started looking around for a new museum site.

King Louie was on the county's shortlist, but Mitchell's $3.5 million asking price seemed exorbitant. The bargain shoppers at the county crossed the bowling alley off the list and moved on, exploring dozens of possibilities for the new museum site, mostly in the 20,000- to 30,000-square-foot range (with an eye to an eventual expansion).

Among the six locations toured by county officials was the developing Lenexa City Center at 87th Street Parkway and Renner Boulevard. Former Johnson County Commissioner Doug Wood wanted to combine the museum with the Oak Park Branch of the Johnson County Library. None of the ideas gained consensus.

Then King Louie's sellers, who were represented by real-estate firm Kessinger/Hunter, lowered the asking price to $2.5 million and indicated a willingness to perhaps go down even further. Joe Waters, director of facilities for Johnson County, brought the idea of buying the discounted King Louie to the Johnson County Board of Commissioners in November 2011. He said the sellers wanted to close the deal by the end of 2011 for tax purposes.

So the Johnson County Commission did Western Development Co. a solid and voted to have the building purchased by the end of 2011 — just one week after the deal was first presented.

Commissioners, concerned that the upcoming holidays would prevent a December quorum, quickly voted November 17 to buy the building for $1.95 million; they also voted to allocate another $1.6 million to protect the building from the elements. Then–Johnson County Commissioner David Lindstrom, whom Kessinger/Hunter employed in the 1970s and '80s, was among those who voted to approve the purchase.

Western Development's $193,000 mortgage on the property, dating back to 2003, was paid off shortly after Johnson County Commissioners voted to approve the deal. The $1.95 million initially came from the county's reserve fund, basically a savings account for the county government to pay for unexpected costs such as, say, a damaging ice storm.

A loan was later taken from UMB Bank to replenish the reserve fund, as rating agencies were warning governments about keeping up adequate reserve levels.

Michael Ashcraft, a Johnson County commissioner whose district largely covers Olathe and Lenexa, had reservations about the way the building was bought and the county's plans for it.

Johnson County was still in belt-tightening mode from a deep recession. Officials had begun publicly contemplating closing libraries and cutting staff across various departments — only to throw seven figures at a building for a possible county museum.

"I really have become much more ardent and much more concerned about the acquisition," Ashcraft tells The Pitch. "Before, I was willing to talk about it and learn and see what the deal was. I had hesitancy at first. I'm just not in the game in terms of being a supporter of it. I think there are lots of other things we can do to support the museum and the history of Johnson County. The acquisition of a facility like that — because we had no plan and we're trying to make a plan, we're trying to rationalize the acquisition now to put a bus stop there or a bus park there and move other agencies in there. It's like, no wonder people question how we do government when we make acquisitions like this and we don't have a clear direction and clear utility for precious resources."

Ashcraft would rather send resources to Johnson County Developmental Supports, which assists people with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD). The cost to serve someone needing that type of assistance is $35,000–$40,000 a year, with 60 percent covered by the feds. The waiting list for services is a lengthy six to eight years.

"I like museums," Ashcraft tells The Pitch. "We've got limited resources. That [IDD] population is the gold standard."

Eilert says the county bought the right building at the right price.

"I had a chance encounter with a local real-estate developer on an airplane flight to D.C.," he says. "This individual was going to look at some property on the East Coast, and the story was in the newspaper a day or two earlier. He said, 'I've been watching that property,' and he said, 'You got a heck of a deal.' "


The old King Louie building won't house just the Johnson County Museum. It's expected to become the new advance voting center, replacing the location at Metcalf South Mall, which is due to be razed for redevelopment.

It's also expected to have space for the Enterprise Center of Johnson County, a business incubator hosted by the county that pays $200,000 in rent to Lenexa. Other county agencies might move in, too.

It's not certain whether the proposed National Museum of Suburbia, coupled with a scholarly Suburban Policy Institute, would take space in King Louie.

Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, is home to the National Center for Suburban Studies. It's seen as the pre-eminent location for academic research into suburbia and related issues, such as problems associated with planning and redeveloping aging suburban towns. Few other academic programs for suburban studies exist outside Hofstra other than an on-again, off-again center at the University of California–Riverside.

Christopher Niedt, academic director for Hofstra's center, says the concept of a suburban museum has to extend beyond sentimentality.

"It also needs to be about more than suburban nostalgia," he says. "It has to ask hard questions about what was good and what was bad about suburban living."

There hasn't been a market study or a feasibility study to determine the demand for a national museum of suburbia in Johnson County. A 2011 master plan for the idea envisions theatrical exhibitions; re-creations of old suburban model homes, such as Sears & Roebuck houses; and maybe an "interpretive car wash experience." Installing all of this would cost, the plan says, about $7.7 million.

The plan predicts 60,000 visitors a year and goes on to describe that figure as a conservative estimate. But no source is cited for that guess. Ticket prices would range from $2 to $6 a person (the Johnson County Museum doesn't charge for admission), with projected revenue of $193,000. Food sales, museum-store income and fundraising events — and $1 million in county operational support — raise the plan's total projected revenue to $1.5 million a year.

Steve Klika, a Johnson County commissioner whose district covers the southeastern corner of the county, doesn't see the concept as viable. Klika, who was elected to the commission after the purchase of King Louie, says, "I know when I ran for election ... there was zero support for trying to promote this."

Museum officials say they're not really analyzing the prospects for a national-scope museum yet. They're more focused on raising the $2 million necessary to help move the current museum out of Shawnee and into the King Louie building.

"I wouldn't say we're on the back burner," says Love, director of the Johnson County Museum. "It certainly wouldn't be realistic for us to raise $10 million in three years."

The last major fundraising campaign for the Johnson County Museum, from 1996 to 1998, to build the current "Seeking the Good Life" exhibit, raised $800,000.

And though the Johnson County Museum's fundraising drive to move to King Louie hasn't started in earnest yet, it's likely to face competition from another museum in Johnson County.

Fred Merrill Jr. is developing the Museum of Prairiefire, at LionsGate, a mixed-use project at 135th Street and Nall Avenue that includes a museum. It would book traveling exhibitions from New York's American Museum of Natural History.

Merrill has established a foundation to support the museum via donations. Its campaign aims to raise $5 million–$6 million. Merrill says the campaign has reached about 20 percent of that goal. "It just takes a lot of work when you're raising money for something," he says.

Whether the work would be worthwhile for a national museum of suburbia, given the absent analysis of demand, is anyone's guess. But Ashcraft and other county commissioners remain ambivalent.

"Is that a venue that would draw me or my family repeatedly?" Ashcraft says. "I'm not seeing that. I may be surprised."

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