The American Royal Reigns On

By Dennis Boone

Challenged by changing demographics and a changing economy, the heritage and financial impact of agriculture in this region are reinforced by the American Royal.

Irrespective of the views that many of them hold about flyover country, the good people of America’s coastal metropolitan areas pay unspoken homage to it three times a day: At breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“If you do a survey,” veterinarian Bud Hertzog wryly notes, “four out of four people eat every day.”

If there’s a face of the Royal behind the scenes, it surely must look like Bud Hertzog. For more than half a century, he’s served not just on the veterinary staff that serves several thousand head of livestock and horses brought in each year, he’s served on committees for managing the efforts to bring in and house those animals and to orchestrate the horse shows.

So for Hertzog, the American Royal is more than just a nostalgic hat-tip to a former way of life. Over the past century, as the majority of Americans have moved from farm to city, and the ratio of farmers to the rest of the population has fallen below 1 percent, advances in agricultural production have been swift and sharp, even as they’ve become less apparent to a commuter-based work force.

As it celebrates its 114th year, the American Royal again demonstrated the prominence that agribusiness plays not just in the regional economy, but the nation’s, too. From a local perspective, the Royal:

•    Draws well in excess of 270,000 people each year to events at the American Royal Complex.

•    Issued $1.4 million in scholarship and educational awards last year.

•    Generates an estimated $60 million in economic impact in Kansas City.

•    Produces $4.4 million in local tax revenues

•    And supports 450 jobs.

And yet, for the past two years, the Royal has been in something of a state of limbo, with no action on the city’s end to address its proposal for improving its facilities to ensure long-term growth and increased relevance on a national stage. In October 2011, the namesakes of the Royal’s next-door neighbor, Kemper Arena, proposed tearing down that 40-year-old facility.

In its place, they urged the city to build a new, $50 million complex tailored specifically to the kinds of events that could keep the Royal competitive with ag, livestock and equestrian shows in Denver, Houston and Louisville. The payback, said UMB Financial Corp. CEO Mariner Kemper, would be a 25 percent increase economic impact on the area, to as much as $75 million a year.

The issue, however, has gained little traction at City Hall, where bigger-ticket items like the impeding street-car system (cost: $102 million) and a potential 1,000-room Downtown hotel (cost: $300 million) are competing for fiscal considerations with roughly $15 million a year in subsidies for the Power & Light District and a $25 billion consent decree that calls for upgrading water infra-structure over a 25-year period.

“We don’t have a champion at City Hall like we used to have,” said Hertzog. “For years, we had mayors and City Council members who understood agriculture and were strong supporters, but we just don’t have the push we used to have” and there’s little emphasis on the sector in traditional media, he said.

No matter how that initiative turns out, the Royal’s impact on this region goes well beyond reinforcing a tie to longstanding agricultural heritage.

“Absolutely; there are a lot of companies, like us, who are able to develop some of our younger people through the Royal’s governors program,” said Bill Krueger, CEO of Lansing Trade Group, which manages ag commodity storage, transportation and trading. “We believe that giving back to the community in the fashion that service to the Royal provides is something all industries ought to practice.”

One of the biggest challenges looming in the relationship between the Royal and the corporate community is the loss of the Kansas City Board of Trade, sold last year to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The board had deep ties for decades to the Royal, and the current president and CEO for the Royal, Bob Petersen, once held the same positions at KCBOT.

“The Board of Trade was one of the largest supporters of the barbecue from when it really took off more than 20 years ago,” Krueger said of the high-profile smoking competition, billed as the largest of its kind in the world. “I think there are a number of companies in Kansas City trying to replace the support that the board gave to the Royal.”

That support will be vital in maintaining traditions that go back generations. Sheri Spader, of Spader Farms in Rosendale, Mo., is a living example of that.

“My earliest recollection of the Royal goes back to my days showing cattle out here,” said Spader, the first woman to become president of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association. “Now, my sons both live in the area, and they have been involved in the discussion of how to make it better, or serve on committees. For the next generation here, the question is, what’s going to happen for the future of the American Royal? It’s had great recognition as the place for brining agricultural awareness to the city.”

Annual school tours of the livestock exhibition, which bring fleets of yellow school buses to the sprawling grounds in the West Bottoms each fall, are eye-openers for urban children, Spader says. “That in itself serves a larger purpose of being a window on the world of agriculture, which is some-thing they can’t get other ways. Grandma and Grandpa no longer live on the farm,
but the link to that wonderful world of raising livestock has to be gotten in other ways.”

Bob Thompson, a director for the Royal, sees its benefit to the community through the lens of his employer, the Bryan Cave law firm. “Working in Kansas City as a lawyer, the specific aspect of the Royal that stands out for me is the charitable impact,” Thompson said. “It’s just a great organization in the way it celebrates our heritage. Growing up on a farm, the Royal was up there with the Denver Western or Houston livestock shows or Louisville—it’s just such a rich history, and it’s important not just for its ties to the past, but also because of the impact on the region
that’s not always recognized.”

Like Thompson, Spader sees the potential for an increasingly influential role for the Royal as the Kansas City region continues to develop its reputation as a global center for animal-health research, products and services.

“Things have moved to a higher plane as we realize that this area, St. Joseph and Kansas City particularly, is becoming more prominent as part of the animal science corridor,” Spader said. “That’s interesting, because you can re-frame the discussion a bit by understanding that because of the solid basis of ag in these parts form very early on, things have moved to those kinds of jobs and that kind of economy—even though we may have left behind the packing houses of St. Joseph and Kansas City, other businesses based on that economy have moved forward.”

That’s a horn, said Hertzog, that the region could blow more loudly for people across the nation.

“If we look at the expanding world population and our ability to feed people, animal ag in general is in great shape here,” he said. “I’m absolutely proud of the fact we have a cow-town image. It made us what we are.”