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Wizards change tack
by Ridge Mahoney, December 22nd, 2009 7:01AM

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[MLS] Whether or not the Kansas City MLS franchise is moving in the right direction won't be known for quite a while, but it is certainly making moves.

Team president Robb Heinemann posted a video Friday detailing the team's plans to set up shop near the Village West development complex and Kansas Speedway about 15 miles west of the city. That's on the Kansas side, near the intersection of Interstate 70 and Interstate 435, and just a ways north of Olathe, Lenaxa and Overland Park, all of which were cited as possible locations for a soccer stadium until a shift to the site of an abandoned shopping mall two years ago.

Cleanup actually began at Bannister Mall, in south Kansas City, in preparation for a $1 billion development that was to include retail space, office space, a hotel and soccer complex in addition to the Wizards' stadium. Collapse of the financial markets last year created an impasse when the city refused to pledge is commitment to back up the sale of STAR (sales tax-revenue) bonds, which were to fund about one-quarter of the entire development.

The STAR program accrues all new state and local sales taxes generated by a project and diverts those funds to repay certain costs of development. Village West is already generating about $40 million in annual sales tax revenue. The stadium would be built on property owned by Nebraska Furniture Mart -- a component of Village West -- whose officials approached the developer and OnGoal earlier this year.

Under the new plan, developer Lane4 Properties Group would build a stadium and the fields, and also a vast office project to house Cerner Corp., a medical software company based in Kansas City whose co-founders Cliff Ilig and Neal Patterson head the Wizards' ownership group, OnGoal LLC. Estimated cost of the project is $400 million. Design of the stadium, to seat 18,500, has been completed by the architectural firm Populous (formerly HOK Sport), and approved by OnGoal.

In his video, Heinemann confirmed agreements and contracts needed to be finalized and signed, but that work on the project would commence in the next few weeks. Delays regarding the Bannister Mall site frustrated OnGoal officials, who had set a target date of 2011 to move into a new facility and leave behind CommunityAmerica Ballpark, where it has played most of its games the last two seasons.

Another move will also bear scrutiny in 2010: the decision by technical director Peter Vermes to fire head coach Curt Onalfo midway through the season and take up the reins himself. Under Vermes, Kansas City won just three and tied three of its last 12 matches and missed the playoffs after making the postseason two straight seasons with Onalfo in charge.

The prospect of moving into a new stadium should energize the team as well as its fans, with this cautionary note attached: Colorado and FC Dallas, to cite just two examples, have stagnated at the gates of their spiffy facilities because they've not squared away the product they put on the field.

From Heinemann, one doesn't get the sense of confusion that has persisted in Dallas, which has hired and fired several coaches since it opened Pizza Hut Park in 2006 and recently jettisoned general manager Michael Hitchcock. Heinemann and OnGoal seem much more committed than management of the Rapids, whose primary investor, Stan Kroenke, and vice-president and managing director Jeff Plush, are zealous devotees of English Premier League club Arsenal. Kroenke has upped his stake in Arsenal to 29.9 percent; at 30 percent, under British law, he is obligated to tender a takeover bid.

Had the Rapids garnered as much as a tie in the season finale, how different would have been the postseason picture. By losing, 3-0, Colorado dropped out of the playoff chase on tiebreakers and left the door open for Real Salt Lake, which opened its new stadium in October of last year; 13 months later RSL celebrated its first championship and the first won by a pro team from the state of Utah in decades.

So a new stadium can be the tipping point for success, or it can be a shinier and financially viable stage for a shaky mediocrity. In a year or so Kansas City will let us know.



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