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Throwback Thursday: Show-and-Tell Help

Posted Jan 16, 2014

Campaign to build Arrowhead was driven by a grass-roots effort

Public campaigns to get stadiums built aren’t easy. They aren’t easy now and they weren’t easy long ago, especially when their success means the disappearance of a beloved – although decrepit – stadium like Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium. 

No one knew that better than Kansas City Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt, who had been battling the odds, ever since he founded a professional football league, put a team in Dallas, and moved it to Kansas City, after having just won a championship in his hometown a year before.

Yet, Hunt knew better than most that a new stadium was needed as a showcase for professional football and he set about, along with a number of Kansas City leaders and grass-roots campaigners, to gain public support, through a tax that would lead to the construction of what would become Arrowhead Stadium, a venue that NFL pioneer George Halas would later call, “the most revolutionary, futuristic, sports complex I have ever seen.”

The idea came closer to reality in 1965, when The Greater Kansas City Sports Commission was organized to promote the sale of professional football and baseball tickets and to aid in the formulation of plans for a new stadium.

After some early struggles, the Chiefs went on to win the AFL championship in 1966 and play in the first Super Bowl.  Season ticket sales grew as a result and Hunt looked to those people, who had bought into the idea of having a professional team, to support his interest in gaining a new home for the Chiefs.     

Implicit in Hunt’s hopes to have a new stadium was that it should have a movable covering, what became known as the “Rolling Roof,” a unique concept that broke from the idea of a dome and different than the Houston Oilers Astrodome, which had opened in 1965.

Support for such a concept would need, as they say, “boots on the ground,” to help propel the effort and draw voter support.

Phyllis Spencer was a Chiefs season-ticket holder, a resident of Raytown, and to call her a community activist would be to do her an injustice. She quickly became a member of the local League of Women Voters and had been at the forefront of a campaign to gain public approval for a study on the area’s clean water.

It was no surprise that given her success and her interest as a Chiefs season ticket holder that she would be drawn to the Jackson County Bond proposal, forwarded by Hunt and others, to build a new stadium.

A feasibility study was completed and in quick time; she joined Jackson County Auditor George Lehr as the chairperson of the Women’s Division – Jackson County Bond Issue, a $102-million proposal.

Interestingly, original plans had called for an enclosed stadium, seating 60,000, with a downtown location. One plan called for it to be built not far from where the Kaufman Center stands today. All these ideas were scrapped.

In place of an enclosed stadium, a rolling roof would move over and back atop a football and a baseball stadium, breaking from the trend in design that was prevalent in other cities that were building new sports venues.

This was a period where new stadiums began to appear in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cincinnati that were rounded in appearance and intended to hold both football and baseball teams with games played on Astroturf. Hunt’s idea was for something to showcase his favorite game. Football would have its own home and baseball its own.

How to get this new image across to voters required a grass-roots campaign that would be very much show-and-tell. Mrs. Spencer, in cooperation with Jack Steadman, Chiefs general manager, and bond chairman George Powell, was able to convince the committee to take the architectural model of the proposed new stadium to voters face-to-face.

To reach voters, Mrs. Spencer and a Mrs. Stanley Grant, chairpersons of what was termed The Jackson County Modernization Committee, traveled around the county in a large truck, housing a three-dimensional model of the proposed stadium complex. This rolling roof model became a crucial element to drive the coming vote. Visitors could walk through the van, which could accommodate as many as 50 people, and read accompanying literature on the complex.

Powell’s company, Yellow Freight, donated the trailer, and with participating Chiefs players, Spencer toured and stopped, as she remembered, at “every shopping center complex, every strip mall, and it seemed like every place that had a large parking lot.”

The Chiefs had their players along for the ride to answer visitor questions, while the public made its way through the 18-wheel trailer, looking at the model, Spencer said. “I assisted with an explanation of the architectural mock-up,” she recalled. “People were able to slide the model’s rolling roof back and forth, along its tracks and over the stadium.”

The voters of Jackson County eventually approved a general obligation bond issue for construction of the complex. A two-thirds approval was needed and the project carried by a comfortable majority of more than 67 percent.

Sadly, construction cost overruns and project delays, caused by a lengthy strike, eventually put the rolling roof portion on hold. In 1984, the Jackson County Sports Authority again investigated the feasibility of a roof made this time of a fabric, but that, too, was dismissed as being unneeded and impractical, but not by Hunt, who held out hopes that it could be added.

When years later, another tax was proposed and passed to renovate and update the stadium, the rolling roof concept – now at a heftier price than had been in the original plans back in the late 1960s – was once again defeated.  It was one of the rare moments that Hunt, who had received a formal commitment from then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the other NFL owners to have Arrowhead host the Super Bowl in 2015 – showed great disappointment.

Mrs. Spencer eventually moved from Kansas City to her family’s farm in Spickard, Missouri, before retiring to an island, off the coast of Savannah, Georgia.

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