SBJ/June 18 - 24, 2001/This Weeks Issue

DLR Group leaps into KC fire

Let's say you're a thriving architectural company with a sports practice based in Florida.

You want to expand that sports facility business, though, so you study lists of potential clients and where they're located, maybe gawk awhile at a U.S. atlas for possible office sites and decide to strike off for ...

Kansas City?

Sounds a bit odd, to say the least, considering that the Kansas City area contains at least seven major sports architecture companies — including three of the top four in recent yearly revenue.

"Some of my friends looked at me like I was crazy," said Bob Carlson, a lead project designer for DLR Group who relocated from Tampa to take over in May as the firm's sports business guru in Kansas City. "They say I'm just getting worse weather and all the competition in the world."

Nevertheless, Carlson and his DLR compatriots seem cheerfully confident as the new crew in town. They're also quick to point out that the Kansas City sports practice won't be left to stand on its own against the likes of HOK, Ellerbe Becket, HNTB, Heinlein Schrock Stearns and others.

"Since we were doing more business in sports, it made sense to have people in three areas of the country instead of just Florida," Carlson said. "Stan Meradith is still in charge in Tampa, and Michael Brady is handling sports projects in the western part of the country from our office in Sacramento."

Still, selecting Kansas City as the Midwest center seems a bit odd, especially considering that DLR's national headquarters sit only three hours up the highway in Omaha.

For another thing, although DLR has two offices in the Kansas City area, neither is more than 7 years old. Nor has DLR handled any previous sports business from its Kansas City locations.

"You want to hear an even funnier thing?" asked Carrie Stallwitz, DLR client service manager. "Our downtown office is about 80 yards away from HOK."

All chuckles aside, DLR is serious about the move.

The company's overall revenue last year ran to $83.2 million, of which about $4.75 million came from sports. This year, projections suggest that the sports and entertainment practice could reach $10 million.

Among DLR's recent sports design successes are — coincidentally — the just-opened Kansas Speedway, a 75,000-seat facility that will host its first Winston Cup race in September, and Haymarket Park, a spectacular minor league ballpark that is now home to the Lincoln (Neb.) Saltdogs.

DLR also is the architect for Omaha's new convention center complex, which will include a sports arena.

Carlson and DLR worked on the Kansas Speedway for more than four years, acting as design subcontractor to project manager HNTB and the track's owner, International Speedway Corp.

"The track brought us some publicity and awareness in Kansas City," Carlson said, "but that project originated when most of the DLR people involved were still in Tampa. Prior to that, we had done some planning studies for ISC, along with designs for suite and grandstand renovations at tracks in Daytona and Phoenix.

"ISC also had seen designs we'd done on several baseball spring training facilities in Florida and some other work as well, so they thought we would make a good partner for this speedway."

Thus, when Kansas Speedway opened to favorable reviews in May, DLR was able to share some of the kudos with HNTB, ISC and Turner Construction, the general contractor.

Carlson and other DLR principals praised HNTB, in particular, for making the collaboration so successful. They also concede the project was a swell marketing tool.

"Yes, it turned out to be a nice jump-start for our Kansas City-based Midwest sports practice," said Jim Galle, DLR principal, "but that was just a bit of fortunate timing. It wasn't what drove the decision to divide sports into three regions or Bob's move to Kansas City."

What remains to be seen is how serious a player DLR turns out to be in a community almost overrun with sports facility architects.

"We're going to stay underneath their radar," Carlson joked. "We're going to concentrate on the minor leagues, collegiate facilities and, obviously, motorsports. We're not in a position to bid for huge stadium projects, because at our size, it's simply too expensive."

On the other hand, DLR already has hired about a half-dozen designers away from other Kansas City-based firms, including four from HOK.

"Just because we understand our limitations and want to concentrate on what we do best," Galle said, "doesn't mean we're not serious about making this a profitable move. We're here, and we're definitely going to be out hustling work."

One new project already has hit the fast lane: DLR has contracted to design a $51 million, 40,000-seat auto track in Newton, Iowa. Track developers requested a state grant for that project last week, although $22.3 million of the funding will come from private sources.

"We've had confidence all along that financing would take shape on the Newton track," Carlson said. "It's an exciting project, and it can become a huge success. That's one of the reasons we've gotten so deeply into motorsports. These tracks all work if they're done right, and the Midwest is great auto racing country.

"Someday, people might not look at us as being quite so crazy for taking a share of our sports practice to Kansas City."

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