The Cosmosphere, a nationally recognized space museum and science education center based in Hutchinson, will not be coming to Overland Park after all. The reason, ironic as it may sound, is something called STAR bonds.
Developers and museum officials were excited about building a satellite of the popular science destination as recently as October. That was the month the museum announced its plans to open a temporary exhibit in some space at the BluHawk development going up at 159th Street and U.S. Highway 69. The exhibit would have featured the Liberty Bell 7 from the Mercury project – famous as the capsule that blew its hatch and sank, leaving astronaut Gus Grissom afloat in the Atlantic for a few minutes after his splashdown. It was to have been an early taste this year of things to come once the permanent building opened in the entertainment, residential and retail development.
But the science center was abruptly pulled from the plans a few weeks later, by mutual agreement with BluHawk developers and Cosmosphere management.
Focus on ice hockey arena, multi-use sports building instead
Not much discussion was offered Monday night as Overland Park City Council members went ahead with the next steps on a revised plan. But at an earlier committee meeting, the development’s lawyer John Petersen said the change was necessary so the project could compete with another one proposed for the Great Mall of the Great Plains in Olathe.
Both projects will use tourism as a way to attract tenants for their hotels and stores. And BluHawk’s other attractions – an ice hockey arena and multi-use sports building – are expected to draw more tourists than the space center. So the decision was made to concentrate on the sports, and leave science for another day.
The tourism draw is important because developers for both BluHawk and the Olathe project want to use a particular type of public financing to pay for some of their costs. That vehicle, Sales Tax and Revenue (STAR) Bonds, was created to build tourist attractions that would bring people in from out of town and out of state.
STAR bonds have figured into other projects in the metro area. Some have been successful and others less so. The Kansas Speedway and Sporting Kansas City arena were both STAR bonds projects. So was Overland Park’s Prairiefire museum.
The idea is that wildly popular tourist destinations will pump up the sales tax revenue in the surrounding area. It’s a portion of that sales tax that goes back to certain development costs.
But there’s a catch. Kansas places some restrictions on STAR bonds. Among them is that developers have to show that at least 30 percent of the tourists will be from at least 100 miles away.
The cities submit the request for the incentive. But it’s the state that makes the final decision. And since both Olathe and Overland Park have hockey arenas in their plan, the question will be whether there will be enough tourists to make both projects feasible. If not, the state Department of Commerce declares the winner.
There are some similarities between the two projects besides hockey. Olathe’s project will also be mixed use and asks for $69.5 million. BluHawk would be for $63 million. But the BluHawk development team thinks it can win because unlike the Great Plains mall project, part of it is already built.
“It is a significant advantage to already have 135,000 feet that is out there generating sales taxes today,” said Todd LaSala, Overland Park’s advisor on such issues.
The competition between cities meant that the developers had to look at what would be the strongest tourist draw, Petersen said earlier. But Jim Remar, chief executive officer of the Cosmosphere, said the decision to part ways was mutual.
“We both reviewed the scale of the development and the economics. I think we both came to a mutual realization that it was in the best interest of both if the Cosmosphere was no longer part of the development,” Remar told the Post.
Remar said he thought there would have been enough tourists to support the Cosmosphere, but “with the economics and the financing it would have been very difficult for the development to support two significant attractions.”
A few Overland Park City Council members expressed regret that the science attraction would no longer be opening. But the STAR bonds application is still eligible without the Cosmosphere, the state has ruled, so they ultimately voted to go ahead and submit it after a three-hour discussion and public hearing.
There’s no other plan afoot for a Cosmosphere permanent presence in Kansas City. But Remar said the space center officials may keep looking.
“We are still very interested in the opportunity of a satellite operation in Kansas City,” he said. “We feel that Kansas city is a very important market for the Cosmosphere and we feel there’s a lot of synergy between what we can offer and Kansas City.”