Apr. 22 -- A $90 million project that few area residents will ever set foot in will extend the welcome mat to visitors arriving at Kansas City International Airport.
Officials say they hope a new consolidated rental-car facility will not only provide a positive first impression of the city but also offer a more streamlined way of renting cars at the airport.
The rental-car complex, which will accommodate 10 companies, sits on 72 acres near Cookingham Drive and Paris Street -- the former site of the airport's satellite parking lot. It is to open May 2.
"We believe this facility and our recent terminal renovations will firmly solidify our role as the region's leading airport," said Kansas City Aviation Director Mark VanLoh.
Rick Hughes, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Kansas City, said the complex would "serve as an extension of all the work that is being done to our city's front door."
About a dozen airports, including those in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Cleveland, Houston and Baltimore, have consolidated rental-car centers, said Barb Mathey, spokeswoman for Vanguard Car Rental, which owns Alamo and National.
"And many more are being designed or are in the process of being built," Mathey said.
When visitors arrive at KCI now, they have to find their rental companies' buses that take circuitous routes to individual check-in centers. Most of the companies are on the fringes of the airport property.
After the consolidation, a single shuttle-bus system, operated by an independent company, will transport travelers to the new facility, which is closer to the three airport terminals. The buses will take them down a ramp and into a large underground garage decorated with neon lighting.
When they get off the buses, visitors will enter the ground floor of the 135,000-square-foot customer service building. They will go up an escalator and at the top see a large terrazzo-floored atrium with 10 rental-car counters. Several plasma-screen monitors will provide flight information.
And at the end of their trips to Kansas City, visitors will drop off their vehicles at the center and board one of three buses, each traveling to a specific terminal, avoiding trips to the two other terminals.
"Most people of Kansas City have never had to rent a car from the airport," VanLoh said, "so they may have no idea what kind of hassle it is right now for visitors, especially if they are trying to return a rental car at night when it's dark."
Every rental agency will have its own dedicated parking area and on-site service center for fueling, washing and maintenance. The facility has a parking capacity of 8,000 spaces, many of them covered.
One of the rental companies, Hertz, will display its club members' names on electronic signs above the spaces where their rental cars are parked.
Last week several volunteer KCI ambassadors, who greet visitors and answer their questions, toured the facility.
"This should help us catch up with other cities," said ambassador Joy Bankhead.
She said visitors sometimes have a hard time understanding how to get to rental-car agencies.
"This will make it so much easier for them," she said.
And with fewer individual shuttle services circulating the terminals, airport officials said, traffic congestion and air pollution at the airport will be reduced.
The facility is the airport's most recent attention-grabbing capital project. In the past six years, KCI's look has changed dramatically with $410 million worth of improvements, including the terminal renovations and construction of the economy parking lot.
General airport revenue bonds, approved by Kansas City voters in 2000, financed the rental-car facility and economy parking lot, plus improvements to the American Airlines overhaul base.
Aviation Director Mark VanLoh proposed letting private business oversee the more than 400 taxis that line up for fares at Kansas City International Airport.
By the time the rental car facility opens, KCI will be sporting more than $410 million worth of improvements in the last six years.
The focus is to use the airport's expansive real estate holdings -- 12.5 square miles, not its air service, as the primary engine for growth.