Archive for Wednesday, May 28, 2003

UG seeks tenant to lease Renaissance Festival site

May 28, 2003

The site of the Kansas City Renaissance Festival is open to proposals for a new lease, which would start in January.

Mike Connor, director of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County Parks and Recreation Department, said a committee was studying the site to see if anyone other than Mid-America Festivals Inc., which runs the Renaissance Festival, were interested in leasing the land.

"It's just that, requesting to see if any other interested parties are out there," Connor said. "It's been 20 years and nobody knows."

The Renaissance Festival name itself belongs to Mid-America Festivals. No one else could use that name to run a festival, a company official said.The festival is a weekend and holiday event from Labor Day to mid-October, set in a medieval town with shops, food, shows and events. Actors costumed appropriately portray characters including Robin Hood and members of the royal family. They perform in jousting meets, longbow competitions and other Renaissance-era shows. Visitors to the festival may participate in activities and rides, purchase crafts from non-profit groups and sample food and drink from the time period.

The site, 628 N. 126th St., where the Renaissance Festival has operated for about 20 years is on Wyandotte County land, Connor said.

The existing contract between Wyandotte County and Mid-America Festivals, which has a Kansas City office at 207 Westport Road, expires in December of this year. The company operates the Kansas City Renaissance Festival and others in the United States.

The contract of the Request for Proposals (RFP) states that Wyandotte County seeks "to lease the property to a qualified firm(s) with the best proposed utilization plan for recreational or entertainment use of the property. Plans should be complimentary to the surrounding park area and maximize both the direct and indirect economic and social impact for the citizens of Wyandotte County, Kansas."

Connor said this means the most qualified organization or person to lease the land has to show interest, previous experience and financial capabilities. Proposals are due June 18.

Carrie Shoptaw, general manager for the Kansas City Renaissance Festival, said Mid-America Festivals wanted to renew its lease.

"I think a misconception is that the Renaissance Festival itself is up for grabs, but it is not," Shoptaw said. "We own the rights to the name, we own all the improvements. You can't use our name, pretend you're us."

With the exception of craft booths and some private vendors, the improvements, which include almost all the buildings, fountains, food booths, gate entrances and benches at the site, belong to Mid-America Festivals.

"I think people think it's a traveling show that pops up and leaves, but it is permanent," Shoptaw said.

The festival takes money and experience to operate, she said.

"I think we've made it look easy, and we're flattered that others think, 'Gosh, I could do that,' but it's an enormous undertaking," Shoptaw said. "We have to have $2.7 million to open, to pay the bills. Hopefully you come out in the black, but sometimes Mother Nature will not have it. When you're an outdoor event, you've got to be able to ride the bad years out. We've held out. You have to have experience to get through it."

The company begins its process in January, searching for actors. In April, auditions begin and roles are cast for the main roles. Auditions for smaller parts continue until the show opens, which will be Aug. 30 this year. Shoptaw said about 300 actors were at the festival each day.

"Two or three times a week actors go to apprentice lessons," she said. "We teach dialogue, customer service, improvisation. Actors not only have to know acting and their part, but also have to have excellent customer service, know how to give directions. They never get to break character."

If the lease is not renewed this year, Shoptaw said, the company plans to move all of its buildings and improvements to a new location.

"However, that is pretty much what we hope will not occur," she said. "Our first priority is to work with Wyandotte County. They've handled this very professionally. We're definitely impressed with them."

Lew Levin, research manager for Wyandotte County, said the county received sales tax, property tax, a percentage of admission prices and lease payment from the festival.

"We haven't done a complete study of its impact," Levin said. "But it would be broader than figures we could produce."

The festival also affects other areas, he said, such as visitors seeking lodging.

"Other types of impact would be profits different vendors make, people on their way stopping in Bonner Springs, at restaurants, for gas, ice-cream," Levin said. "In terms of direct impact, last year their payment was $43,000."

That money was the lease payment alone.

Levin said the wording of the contract between Mid-America Festivals and the county for 2000 to 2003 included a percentage of admission, which equaled about $0.32 per paid attendant. If the festival had 130,000 paying visitors in one year, that percentage of admission would generate $41,600 for the county.

Shoptaw, the festival's general manager, estimated about 180,000 people attended the festival per year, bringing their business to Wyandotte County.

"To make sure we're the right fit, we'll go through the process," Shoptaw said. "They've been very fair, and we know they have to do what they have to do."

Shoptaw does not know when the county will make its decision, she said.

"It's been stressful and worrisome, but we're forging ahead," she said. "If for some reason we're not renewed, it's important to us to have the opportunity to say goodbye to our guests and the community--if and only if we had to face that, but we don't want to face that. We're confident and we're hopeful."

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