Business Leaders Call KCI 'A Little League Airport' That Needs Big Changes

Preliminary estimates are that a new terminal, close parking garage and other features could cost $1.2 billion, although aviation department officials have said they want to lower that price.

Jan. 29--While many residents love Kansas City International Airport, business leaders said Tuesday it is increasingly outdated and stodgy, presenting a mediocre first impression to visitors and those considering doing business here.

"It's kind of like an old and comfortable shoe," Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce president Jim Heeter told the KCI Terminal Advisory Group.

He said many chamber members want a more modern airport that will attract and retain strong businesses and reflect the vibrant community it serves.

"As one of our CEOs put it," Heeter said, "KCI 'is the front door for our community ... and does not project a dynamic, innovative, 21st century American city.' "

Bill Moran, who has a business recruiting nonprofit executives, agreed.

"We're way behind what other airports are doing," he told the airport task force. "We are a big league town ... but we have a little league airport."

The testimony Tuesday was in sharp contrast to much of the commentary from the public over the past year. Passionate passengers and Kansas City residents have resoundingly opposed the idea of an expensive new terminal at KCI and said they like the airport just the way it is.

Nonetheless, advisory committee members said it is important to hear from the business community because business travelers constitute one-half to two-thirds of the passengers at KCI.

Heeter said newer airports in cities such as Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tenn.; and Orlando, Fla., have personality, showcasing what's best about their communities.

"You know where you are," he said. "When you arrive at KCI, you don't have a sense of place."

Heeter said the airport lacks restaurants, shops and even ample restrooms that corporate executives are accustomed to finding in other big-city airports.

Bob Marcusse, president of the Kansas City Area Development Council, and Bill White, senior vice president of corporate communications for Sprint Corp., echoed Heeter's concerns. They said KCI needs major upgrades in technology and close parking and needs to create the potential for more domestic and international flights.

Marcusse said he was aware of some examples where the airport was a factor in the city losing out on business opportunities, although he said he could not give specifics because of nondisclosure agreements.

White said that Sprint's young executives, and the young people the corporation is trying to attract, want a much more contemporary airport with "power, power, power" for their cellphones and other high-tech devices.

He told the story of the company's chief lobbyist, who was with a group of bankers, attorneys and entrepreneurs one night when their flight was delayed in Terminal A, which the airport has since shut down. All the shops closed by 6 p.m., and they were told they could take a shuttle to another terminal or the nearby Marriott hotel if they needed a meal.

White asked what kind of business message that sends about Kansas City "if things roll up at 6 p.m."

Preliminary estimates are that a new terminal, close parking garage and other features could cost $1.2 billion, although aviation department officials have said they want to lower that price.

Heeter said his organization strongly supports the concept of a new terminal, although it is not calling for something extravagant.

"We don't expect a new KCI to be a Taj Mahal," he said. "We do want it to be affordable, practical, convenient, built to live a long life and adaptable."

A major concern, the chamber president said, is that even crucial repairs and renovations to the existing terminals are estimated to cost between $500 million and $700 million.

He said the committee should seriously consider whether spending more in the next few years would save money in the long run and help the city build a state-of-the-art airport that would last an additional 40 years.

"The concern we have is that any renovation would be just a Band-Aid," he told the group. "We don't want to be having this discussion again in seven years."

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