Story updated at 4 p.m. Wednesday:
KU plans to build a 600-person conference and event center that would be integrated into the north bowl of its football stadium, according to a concept plan obtained by the Journal-World.
While the plans aren’t set in stone, the concept answers one of the biggest questions that’s been floating around Jayhawk tailgaters this season: Where is everyone going to park and tailgate if KU builds a convention center and other amenities on the football stadium’s main parking lot? (Previously the biggest KU tailgating question was why do they call it a Hefty plate if it can’t withstand my 4-pound breakfast helping of nacho cheese?)
The concept plan doesn’t call for construction on much of the main parking lot on the east side of the stadium near the intersection of 11th and Mississippi streets — at least not yet. The concept site plan lists that area as a possibility for development in future phases.
Instead, the concept leans heavily on a transformation of the north bowl area of the stadium, which is the end of the stadium farthest from the Hill and closest to the 11th and Mississippi intersection.
The Kansas Board of Regents on Wednesday unanimously approved a “program statement” that would allow work to begin in earnest on a $335 million project to renovate David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium and convert the 11th and Mississippi area into a gateway for the university. It also would allow fundraising for the project to begin.
“We certainly need to go out and raise funds for this,” Chancellor Douglas Girod told the Regents.
Girod noted that a plan to upgrade KU’s football stadium has been on KU’s capital improvement plan for more than a decade, but he said the gateway project idea is new and will help improve the feasibility of the project.
“We are going to get it done this time,” Girod told the Journal-World in a brief interview on Wednesday.
Earlier this week the Journal-World reported the Regents would consider the project, but the full program statement wasn’t available. The Journal-World, though, recently asked for and received a copy from Regents staff. The document provides several new details about the project, including:
— The north bowl of the stadium would include a new 30,000-square-foot conference and event center that could seat 600 people. The facility would also have room for dining and retail operations. On football game days the facility’s multipurpose room would be designed to serve as a “premium field-level club” that can host up to 600 fans.
— KU is currently awaiting completion of an economic feasibility report that will help determine what types of events the facility could host on a regular basis. KU leaders have told Regents the facility likely will host a “wide variety of entertainment options,” but it was unclear whether KU is considering using the new center or the entire stadium for concerts and other similar entertainment events. The report did make clear that the new event center would be designed to host “conferences, meetings, lunches/dinners, award banquets, community events” and other such functions.
— The event center also would have space set aside for health care facilities, presumably for a health care provider that wanted to establish a presence on the KU campus. KU hasn’t announced any health care companies it is working with, but the University of Kansas Health System is one of the fastest growing in the state, currently has a limited presence in Lawrence and also is in affiliation discussions with LMH Health.
— When KU leaders in September announced the idea for an 11th and Mississippi gateway, they also talked of a hotel for the site. A hotel is not mentioned in the documents submitted to Regents. However, the documents submitted to Regents detail only phase 1 of the project. The concept site plan shows multiple areas, especially on the east side of the stadium, that could accommodate more development in future phases.
— Phase 1 would include a new berm seating and plaza area on the south end of the stadium, which is the end that opens to the Hill. Plans call for a grass berm seating area that would have the ability to host “food trucks, concerts, farmers markets, art festivals, food festivals, outdoor theater, fitness classes, university events, cultural events” and other similar functions. KU said in the document that it will create a design that still allows for the Hill to be a highly visible backdrop for the stadium.
“Seating at the south end zone will be limited to avoid visual obstructions of the Hill from inside the stadium,” KU officials said in the document.
— KU said it also plans to replace the existing video board and soundboard, located at the south end of the stadium currently. The report didn’t say where the new video board would be located.
— The first phase of the project would include multiple upgrades to the traditional elements of the football stadium. Those include new seating on the west, north and east sides of the stadium that will improve sight lines and also offer a greater number of chair-back seats; new end zone seating in the north bowl that “brings fans much closer to the field and provides a more enclosed feel to the stadium;” new restrooms and concession stands; and improvements to concourse areas.
— The concept plan calls for a new pedestrian plaza area near the northeast corner of the stadium, where there currently is parking and a grassy area used for tailgaiting. The plaza would serve as a new northern entrance into the stadium, given that the new events center may eliminate some existing northern entrance points.
— Plans call for the first phase to include up to six new luxury suites for donors, plus a new VIP entrance and elevator access. Plans call for the new suites to be on the west side of the stadium, which where KU’s existing suites are located.
— The first phase also would include major renovations to the Anderson Family Football Complex, the building just southwest of the stadium that houses football offices, locker rooms and other such spaces. Plans call for a new, more “impressive” lobby, a better physical connection between the Anderson building and the stadium itself, a reconfiguration of meeting rooms and other space, and and “enhanced tunnel entry from the locker room to the field in order to create a more dynamic stadium entry sequence that provides the ultimate hype effect on both the team and fans.”
— The report does not provide any number related to seating capacity the renovated stadium is expected to have upon completion. KU’s stadium currently has a capacity just under 50,000 people (47,233), and is the seventh largest among the 10 schools currently in the Big 12.
The Kansas Board of Regents is expected to receive an update on the project Wednesday afternoon at its monthly meeting, and may give approvals for KU to proceed with the project. Check back for updates.
KU hopes to have a preliminary design for the project completed in the spring and would like to start construction in December 2023. Construction would be completed in August 2026, according to the timeline submitted to Regents.
In their document to Regents, KU leaders are highlighting that the project would have economic benefits that go beyond the traditional football game day activities. But KU also is stressing that the project is critical to help KU remain in a Power Five athletic conference for the long term.
The report to Regents cites a study that estimates that if KU were to move from a Power Five conference, the state’s economy would lose $192 million a year. KU officials also warned Regents that KU’s enrollment also would likely decline at rates greater than it already has, if KU falls out of the top echelon of athletic conferences. KU leaders stressed that would have long-term consequences for the state as a whole.
“To put it plainly, the University of Kansas is the state’s major talent magnet — and that magnet would be significantly weakened should KU not be in a Power Five conference,” the report reads.
At Wednesday’s Regents meeting, Girod said the university intends to apply for state economic development funds that have been set aside in Gov. Laura Kelly’s budget for university-related economic development projects. Those funds require $3 in private money for every $1 in state money. Girod said it hadn’t yet been determined how much KU might ask for in state dollars. He said Kansas Athletics Inc. issuing debt for the project remains a possibility. Consistent with past comments, Girod said there are no plans for KU to use its general state funding or tuition dollars to help pay for the project.