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Why the Chiefs’ pursuit to renovate Arrowhead Stadium has hit a snag. And what’s next

The most intriguing short-term question confronting the 2023 Chiefs is whether their postseason path will once more roll exclusively through GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.

The more intriguing long-term question is whether future seasons will roll through Arrowhead Stadium at all.

The common thread between the two? It’s not solely up to them.

As the Royals analyze options to move their stadium out of the Truman Sports Complex, the Chiefs have been consistent in their preference to remain there.

That consistency is about to be tested.

The Chiefs are quietly evaluating the need to pursue alternatives outside Jackson County as their push to negotiate a renewal of a county-wide sales tax has failed to launch substantive conversations, multiple sources told The Star.

Well, it was quietly.

You’re probably aware of the recent rhetoric, including from some local politicians, implying that the Chiefs already have one foot out the door — and are strutting toward Kansas, no less. That gasoline-on-the-fire message follows a worst-case-scenario playbook, not to mention a Kansas City tactic of pitting two states against each other for its prized assets.

But this doesn’t paint an entirely accurate picture.

The Chiefs have not engaged in serious conversations with outside parties about a move across the state line, sources told me, a sentiment confirmed to The Star’s Katie Bernard by Brianna Johnson, a spokeswoman for Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly.

That doesn’t mean they won’t.

For this column, I’ve spoken with officials at the city, county and state levels, along with those familiar with the planning inside both the Chiefs and Royals organizations, seeking to answer the burning question in all of this: How does this process end for the Chiefs?

The most frequent response starts with two words: “It depends ...”

On what? We’re going to delve into that here. But if the Chiefs, who over and over again stated their plans to renovate GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium rather that build new elsewhere, are even thinking a future elsewhere, it leads to some pretty obvious questions:

Why? How did it reach this point?

The Royals started and initially drove the stadium conversation, not only publicly, but behind the scenes too. The Chiefs weren’t completely silent observers, but they appeared content to allow the Royals to negotiate a new lease with Jackson County and county executive Frank White, and then follow with what would ideally be a smoother and quicker conversation.

The latter has just simply not been the case. The former, waiting on the conclusion of Royals’ negotiations, has since changed, and perhaps of late.

What’s been lost along the way is that the Chiefs, too, are interested in an April 2024 ballot measure, for reasons I’ll cover here. And as a Jan. 23 deadline to secure that ballot measure has neared, they ignited their own talks, separate from the Royals, earlier this fall.

“We have met with Frank and the county attorneys in an introductory meeting,” Chiefs team president Mark Donovan said in a statement. “We shared that we would like to focus on extending the current 3/8th-cent sales tax. This partnership has served us well for over 50 years, and we look forward to working with them to enhance the amazing community asset that GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium has become.”

Where do those talks stand now?

“We have not heard back from the county,” Donovan said.

The narrative that there is some sort of stalemate in negotiations between the Chiefs and Jackson County falsely implies the existence of such negotiations. The Chiefs have expressed urgency in their meetings to beat the January deadline, just as they’ve done publicly, but that has been countered with patience — or, more accurately, not countered at all.

In other words, what you’re currently reading should not be construed as commentary about which side ought to be more eager to sign the offer on the table.

There is no offer before them to consider.

There are no negotiations before them.

And Jan. 23, mind you, is 53 days away.

There’s another oddity at play here that has delayed the process:

It is not yet clear with whom the Chiefs should negotiate their new lease: White, or the Hardwick Law Firm recently presumably hired to handle negotiations, or a newly formed stadium improvements committee within the Jackson County legislature. Separately, each of those entities has voiced a degree of authority over any such talks, some even in conversations with The Star over the last two weeks.

That has prompted ongoing confusion, even from those involved — heck, especially from those involved — about how to proceed.

The Chiefs have sought a 25-year renewal of the 3/8th-cent sales tax passed in 2006, as Donovan said, with no significant additions to the long-standing lease. That’s the path they are attempting to navigate, with a conclusion that would keep them at Arrowhead for the next quarter-century.

But in my discussions with an array of politicos, it’s evident to many that White does not believe the current lease agreement benefits Jackson County, the jurisdiction that funds and manages the facilities but does not receive direct revenue from the stadiums. The deal is more complicated than the tax — for example, no one has raised a hand to pay for demolition of Kauffman Stadium if the Royals move, an expense that would total tens of millions of dollars.

Jackson County is apparently not outright opposed to seeing some money directed toward the construction or renovation of sports stadiums. In October, the county offered the Royals a sum of $300 million over 20 years, in annual increments of $15 million.

White is positioned at the center of this saga as the county executive who just so happens to be a member of the Royals Hall of Fame. But his lack of eagerness to extend the status quo is not an isolated view within the county, sources said. He has at least some support from the legislature, thought there are varying opinions about the reach and depth of that support.

And therefore it’s notable that others within the county government want to create a path for the Chiefs to circumvent White by securing backing from a majority of the legislators to extend the sales tax. There is doubt, however, about whether they would have enough support to override a potential veto from White, if it were to come to that.

Let me sum that up more simply: It is not uncommon for the nine-member Jackson County legislative body to disagree over a particular issue, whether that’s with White or amongst one another. The stadium is unquestionably one of those issues, as evidenced by what you’re seeing play out through media appearances and social media posts. It’s important to note that no single voice is perfectly representative of all others involved.

Manny Abarca, a county legislator who represents the downtown area, has publicly pushed a concern that the Chiefs could leave the state. He is the chairman of the stadium improvements committee that met for the first time last month, which Megan Marshall, another legislator, later called “disorganized and haphazard” in a Facebook post.

So, yeah, it’s not a unified front on the county side. And it’s misleading to characterize the county as some sort of singularly minded adversary.

The bigger point for now, though, is where this leaves the Chiefs, which is here: Whether these are short-term obstacles or insurmountable long-term hurdles, the consequence is the same. It creates uncertainty, and that uncertainty compels the Chiefs to at least evaluate the possibilities of options outside Jackson County.

It’s long been an open secret that Kansas would do all it could to open its door to the NFL champs.

The Chiefs and Royals still prefer to exhaust all avenues within their current county to get funding generated by sales tax. But event as they have expressed urgency to enhance discussions toward that end, the county does not appear to be in a hurry to accelerate talks with teams whose current leases run through 2031.

But that’s not the primary date influencing either team’s operations. The Royals, who have had more frequent meetings with the county, have stated their preference to play downtown baseball sooner rather than later. Their recent focus has primarily been analyzing the logistics of the former Kansas City Star building along the south loop, and they have started the process of creating renderings for the site, sources said.

They’ve also publicly stated their target of an April ballot measure, which comes with that rapidly approaching Jan. 23 deadline. It’s a deadline that the Chiefs are targeting, too — with a more concrete plan, at least to date.

I’ll put this out there before I continue: In the course of speaking with several people for this column, there are overwhelmingly more who classify an April ballot measure as a long-shot than those who expect the county and teams to reach an agreement before the January deadline.

But let’s get into why that matters, because it’s the lever that could swing the Chiefs from evaluating other options to outright pursing them.

Much as their peers across the NFL secured finances from the states of New York and Tennessee, the Chiefs are seeking a sizable investment from the state of Missouri in their stadium renovation proposal. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson informed Donovan, the Chiefs’ team president, that he will “compete with any state trying to move the Chiefs,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported nearly two years ago.

While I am told the Chiefs are not seeking dollars equal to amounts sought by the Buffalo Bills ($600 million) or Tennessee Titans ($500 million), it’s not hard to connect the dots here. They want state money to complete a project, and they have a governor who has been outwardly supportive of that goal — but one who in a month will be entering his final year in office.

While it will take more than Parson’s blessing to secure finances from the state of Missouri, it doesn’t take a business wizard to conclude known support from the head of the current administration is preferable to the unknowns that await after he leaves office

Hence the urgency from the Chiefs.

The Chiefs are also needing to plan around their 2026 World Cup construction, which commences in the second half of 2024. A broader stadium renovation project would ideally begin shortly after the conclusion of the 2026 World Cup.

That proposed renovation project, which will likely come with a price tag of about $1 billion, would include upgrades inside the stadium (VIP and fan experiences) and outside the stadium (tailgating, along with ingress and egress improvements).

If they get the money they seek.

Well, if they get the money in April.

The deadline to put something on the Jackson County ballot in April is about seven weeks away — though that’s assuming the negotiations run through White’s office or Hardwick Law Firm. As I mentioned, the Chiefs could instead secure the backing of county legislators, who also have the authority to place an item on the ballot.

But if White were to veto that item, six of the nine legislators would be required to override. And White would have 10 days to veto a measure, a timeline the Chiefs (or Royals) would need to build into their plan.

Which provides a sense of the tight window in which all of this is happening.

Thus, the Chiefs and county have yet to fully enter into negotiations. They still need to secure the framework of a lease and come up with language for a potential ballot measure. And unless they break free, the Chiefs must hope the Royals, who have yet to settle on a site, will do the same.

In 53 days.

The Star’s Katie Bernard contributed to this report.