France Kennedy, ISC Bring Hollywood To Kansas
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – A freakily rare February lightening storm crawled into Kansas City on Friday morning. The big kind. The kind that kicks the danger factor of rush-hour traffic up to absurd. The kind that can worry pilots and close airports.
Not the kind, however, that was going to turn Lesa France Kennedy’s airplane around and send it back to Daytona Beach. Not on Friday – the day that marked the official opening of the Hollywood Casino sits atop Turn 2 at Kansas Speedway.
“Wasn’t going to miss this,” she said when asked about the flight in while seated in a booth in a still-empty restaurant at the casino.
Not after all of the work and the lobbying and setbacks that she and the International Speedway Corporation that she leads have encountered during their half-decade effort to get the casino approved and built.
“I can’t believe this,” France Kennedy said as she waited for the doors of the Las Vegas-quality casino to be thrown open to the public for the first time. “I can not … I just … you can’t take it all in. When you first walk in, it is absolutely overwhelming. It is amazing. It has exceeded all my expectations and by far.”
Outside the casino, cars jammed the access roads and backed up onto the freeway to the east of the
speedway. A half hour after the noon opening, tables were crowded and virtually every seat at the slots were taken. The buffet was under assault.
A half hour before opening, dignitaries, a couple drivers and officials who helped with the birthing of the speedway and casino held a press conference. They cut the ceremonial ribbon, they thanked each other and they stood looking up and around at all they had done.
A half hour before that, France Kennedy talked about the journey.
It started, she said, when the State of Kansas decided to allow companies who were interested in building a casino in Wyandotte County to bid for the project.
“We took a look at it,” she said. “We have a lot of property here, we thought that it work well with the entertainment aspects in this overall area with our speedway, with Village West (the large restaurant/entertainment/shopping district which has bloomed to the east of the speedway), the tourism and it just made sense to do.”
Other gaming companies thought so as well. Five – players all – submitted bids to build in the county.
With the bidding processes heating up, France Kennedy stood up one day in front of the government gaming committee that was overseeing the process and announced she was prepared to help secure Kansas Speedway a second Sprint Cup date and build an infield road course if granted rights to build the casino and hotel.
Other bidders cried foul.
During the extended bidding and approval process the world economy was devastated by recession. The original gaming company which was working the ISC pulled out. But, Hollywood operator Penn National quickly stepped in to work with ISC.
Their plan was to phase in the project – build the $400-million casino first and add a hotel and conference facility afterward.
That forced ISC to re-bid the project and then wait some more.
Eventually, ISC and Penn National were granted the right to build.
On Friday, memories of all of those fits and starts were drowned out loud by live music, ringing bells from the slots and the casino’s interactive lighting.
When it was suggested to her that she must be proud of what surrounded her Friday, France Kennedy went all shy. “I’m proud of our company, I will tell you that. It was a large undertaking and the casino partnership is, I believe, on of the largest projects we’ve ever had within our company.
“We have a lot of confidence in this area and we have a lot of support. Not just government, but fan support. I’m really proud of the way everything has come together.”
ISC owns 11 other NASCAR tracks. None have casinos.
France Kennedy knew what question was coming next.
“Are there other casinos right now on the drawing board? We would be open to it in areas that allowed that,” France Kennedy said. “But having said that, we would be willing to look at anything that would complement our business, give our fans other things to do, extend their stay and offer better guest amenities. Anything that would complement our core business, we would take a look at.”
Good call, one would have to say after Hollywood arrived in Kansas on Friday.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org