WHAT IF THEY CALL IT THE WAL-MART OPRY HOUSE?

Kiel is suddenly the Center of attention with its acquisition by Bill and Nancy Laurie, but that doesn't mean the Opera House will return to the spotlight

If anyone thinks that the sale of the Blues and Kiel Center means a billionaire is coming to the rescue of the adjoined Opera House, it's best not to get in line at the box office yet. The $100 million sale of the National Hockey League Blues and Kiel Center to the daughter and son-in-law of Sam (Walton, that is) means that Bill and Nancy Laurie, worth about a billion bucks by most accounts, have assumed the responsibilities of the sellers, the former Kiel Center Partners. The partners are now known as Clark Enterprises, named for the street Kiel Center faces. The Siamese-twin Opera House faces Market Street.

Assuming the responsibility of the old partners when it comes to the Opera House means assuming not very much at all. Continuing the status quo in this case would mean that the new owners won't want to spend the money needed to reopen the Opera House as the old owners had promised, and it means the city won't have the gumption to challenge that inertia in court.

When the city spent $35 million to demolish the old Kiel Auditorium, prepare the site for the new building and construct parking garages, the local corporations that formed Kiel Center Partners talked fast and loose about how the Opera House was going to be renovated and reopened. But when the cost to the partners of the new home for the Blues rose to $134.7 million, the part-time sports moguls reconsidered. Their new position was that the $2.5 million they spent to restore utilities and stabilize the Opera House during the demolition of Kiel Auditorium and construction of Kiel Center was all they were legally required to spend.

In 1994 the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority issued a certificate of completion, and the partners latched onto that like a "Get Out of Jail Free" card in a local game of Monopoly. They contended that the certificate freed them of any further responsibility to redo the Opera House. Faced with what they described as a money-losing team and facility, they looked for a buyer.

Lost in the sighs of relief and exultation brought on by big money coming to town is the fact that the folks at City Hall are still trying to find somebody to rent the Arena space on Oakland Avenue they had to sacrifice for the new downtown sports palace. The Arena, blown up in February, was bought by the city for $15 million in 1986 during a scare of the Blues' moving to a suburban rink. The city also committed to never selling tickets at the Arena, thereby entering a noncompete arrangement with the new Kiel Center.

Even after selling the site to Balke Properties for development, the city remains $6 million in the hole. Also as part of the new Kiel deal, the historic Children's Building at Clark Avenue and 14th Street was demolished to make more parking for Kiel.

As for the Opera House, yet another recommendation is due out in the next month or two from Downtown Now. The prior ideas by the Urban Land Institute were for some type of museum, either jazz and blues or a spin-off of the Smithsonian Institution. Meanwhile, Opera House maven Ed Golterman has submitted a petition to the city, containing more than 4,000 signatures, backing the opening of the Opera House for its original use as a performing-arts facility.

The Lauries, as new owners, appear cautious. They promise to tour the Opera House, but they also plan to be busy running a hockey team and the Kiel Center. Their caution may be a byproduct of their recent efforts in Denver.

Back in April, the Lauries thought they had a deal for the NBA Denver Nuggets, the NHL Colorado Avalanche and Denver's Pepsi Center, where both teams play. The price tag was $400 million, but shareholders felt that figure was too low and some thought it fishy that the CEO for the firm that owned the teams and the venue was going to become an executive for the Lauries and become an equity partner in the enterprise for something around $35 million. The Lauries' bid was eclipsed by Denver billionaire Donald Sturm, who plunked down a $461 million offering. When that series of events ended in late July, the Lauries had to look elsewhere, so the last thing they may want is more controversy.

 
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