A decades-long project to honor Walt Disney and empower imaginative thinking along Kansas City’s east side could finally be on track for completion, said Butch Rigby.
“The idea for that building is the kid from over on 31st and Troost looks up and understands the Walt Disneys of the world came from that very corner,” said Rigby, Kansas City real estate developer and chairman of Thank You Walt Disney — a local organization committed to preserving the history of Walt Disney and restoring the building that housed Laugh-O-Gram Studios and the famous animator’s original office.
It was in that humble brick building off Troost that Disney not only developed what would become known as the “Cradle of Hollywood Animation” — the training ground for animators who would later create some of America’s most iconic cartoons — but also where Disney first met and a befriended a real-life mouse that would become the inspiration for his most well-known creation: Mickey Mouse.
The realization of the site’s redevelopment — with renovation designs and study by BNIM — could be as close as 18 months away and would include a full rehab of the space to include a museum, new animation studios, and a co-working site expected to be managed by Kansas City-based Plexpod, Rigby told Startland News.
After a years-long hiatus, work could begin again as soon as this month — exactly 98 years after Disney first moved into the space in May 1922.
Click here to explore proposed plans for the preservation project.
“Opportunities came from that corner and they still do,” Rigby said, outlining the non-profit’s plans to re-energize fundraising and restoration efforts that previously stalled.
The ‘time has come’
Honoring Disney has long been a commitment for many in Kansas City — including Rigby, who was once approached by Hallmark with the idea of rehabbing a then-shuttered Union Station into a museum that honored his legacy, he recalled.
“They actually took over the not-for-profit and they went to California to discuss the National Walt Disney Museum. The Disney company, Michael Eisner, head of the company at the time, said, ‘No, I don’t see how the museum works.’”
With the Hallmark effort shot down, Rigby and his counterparts at Thank You Walt Disney regained control of the organization and pivoted efforts to restoring the Troost building with heavy support from then-Mayor Emmanuel Cleaver, he said.
“The building just got to the point where it collapsed in on itself and [its owners couldn’t decide if they wanted to fix it.] … Dan Viets [Kansas City attorney,] prior to being on our board, had been working with the owners, pleading with them to fix the roof,” Rigby explained, noting the city was simultaneously closing in on a deal to demolish the building.
“Emanuel Cleaver was interested in our plans … Finally the city said [to the building’s owners at the time], ‘We’re going to tear it down and bill you 90-grand or, if you guys will sell it, we will give this a not-for-profit a chance to rebuild it.’”
The building’s owners agreed to a deal and sold the deteriorating structure to Rigby, Viets, and John Shipp, founder of the Film Commission of Greater Kansas City in the early 2000s.
“The whole front of the building fell off and we took it in that condition, raised money and we rebuilt the shell of the building,” Rigby said, noting significant financial help from Diane Disney, daughter of Walt Disney, who pledged matching funds for the project which landed a $460,000 grant from the Walt and Lily Disney Foundation.
Through its fundraising, the organization was able to replace the building’s roof, and stabilize its interior with steel beams.
“We buttoned the building up and waited for an opportunity with the neighborhood to start putting the building into service,” he said, noting the organization shifted its focus to more educational components of its mission — to preserve a part of history that would have otherwise disappeared.
“Funders over the years have always said, ‘We’ll be interested when we feel the neighborhood can sustain a building like that. … Well, that time has come,” Rigby said.
Keep reading below the map.
A bridge to renewed hope
Some 20 years later, steady redevelopment along Troost has primed the project to reach its potential, noted Gary Sage, Thank You Walt Disney board member and retired senior business development officer at the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City (EDCKC).
“The biggest detriment to fundraising [are] the surrounding properties,” Sage said, noting financial support for the endeavour had slowed.
“Three years ago I talked to a couple of leaders of the philanthropic community here in Kansas City and as they looked at the property around it, they were [hesitant] to really make any kind of investment in it,” he said.
Then came Operation Breakthrough — the STEM focused, education organization which built a bridge over Troost in 2018, symbolically connecting it to the larger community and a new building.
“[As a result] momentum is coming from the north all the way down to 31st street. … That new building and, of course, the connection that they’ve made on that bridge across it, I think, fundamentally changes the whole nature of that neighborhood down there,” Sage said.
The Troost Corridor Action Plan has also pushed the project forward, he added.
“I think we’re lucky to have this facade improvement program. … It’ll make it easier for us to raise money. We’ve now got a commitment from the TIF commission — on the Heart of America TIF — for $160,000 that we’ve had to match. We had about $152,000 left over from the original grant,” Sage detailed.
If the organization can raise an additional $8,000, they’d likely be able to start work on the building’s facade this month, he said.
“Fortunately, I have some experience renovating these kinds of buildings,” Rigby added, noting his portfolio of other historically significant rehab projects that include partial ownership of Westport Junior High School — the site of Plexpod Westport Commons.
“Every building I’ve ever done, every tenant I’ve ever had, found the history of the building appealing. And I think that will extend to [this project] … the idea that, ‘I’m working in Walt Disney’s original cartoon studio. I have my conference room meetings in Walt’s office,’” Rigby said of excitement surrounding the project and the appeal it could have within the Kansas City entrepreneurial and creative community.
Potentially even more impactful, the project stands to signal a new era of opportunity on the city’s historic east side, he said.
“It brings excitement and uniqueness to the area of 31st and Troost. It says, ‘Hey, Troost is hip and it’s new and it’s exciting and it’s a part of the world,’’’ Rigby said of his hope for the project, which is currently accepting community support dollars to reach its goals.
“I think it’s very important that we take our development dollars and not just simply throw them at areas, but we logically and thoughtfully move this kind of activity to areas around Troost and east of Troost,” he said. “I think this is a powerful way to do it.”