UMKC wants the Missouri Legislature to go halfsies on a $90 million downtown campus



Kansas City's better-known citizens - the ones who wear suits and don't play for theChiefs or Royals - packed Union Station's Chamber Board Room on September 19. This gathering for those tagged "business and civic leaders" served as an update on the progress of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce's "Big 5" ideas.

The Big 5 was initiated about two years ago when the chamber, then headed by Burns & McDonnell CEO Greg Graves, asked community members what they wanted to see happen in the Kansas City area. A list of 182 ideas was trimmed to five.

The five ideas are laudable in their own right, although some benefit the community more than others. An exam-ple: The goal to make Kansas City "America's Most Entrepreneurial City" would be difficult to quantify in any meaningful way and would be hard to measure against cities like Boston, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.

Another goal, to improve impoverished east Kansas City neighborhoods between 22nd and 52nd streets, sounds good. But much like the entrepreneurship goal, how will anyone know when the threshold of improvement is met?

Then there's the notion that Kansas City should host a global symposium on animal health. Seems like a solid idea to someone working in the scientific community. But it's difficult to imagine that Mr. and Mrs. Kansas City Citizen have spent much time clamoring for such an event.

An idea to grow Kansas City's medical-research community hinges on Jackson County voters passing a half-cent sales tax on November 5.

The most promising Big 5 proposal aims to bring the University of Missouri - Kansas City's arts programs downtown, to an area that has lost businesses and jobs in large numbers. Boosters believe that the idea would accelerate downtown growth with an influx of 600 students and faculty members. But it may also be one of the more challenging of the five goals.

The first phase of the UMKC Downtown Arts Campus is to move the school's Conservatory of Music and Dance near the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, at a cost of $90 million. The university received good news earlier this year when Julia Irene Kauffman, daughter of Ewing and Muriel Kauffman, pledged $20 million to the project - if UMKC raises $70 million on its own in the next three years.

"I have to get some private fundraising, so don't run for the door," UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton told a crowd of about 150 at the chamber's Union Station meeting.

For starters, UMKC is looking to raise $25 million from private sources. Coupled with Kauffman's $20 million, that works out to half of the $90 million needed to start the Downtown Arts Campus. UMKC hopes that the rest will come from the state of Missouri.

A couple of years ago, the Missouri Legislature passed a bill that would allow the state to match up to half the funds raised by the university to make capital improvements on its campus. While the legislation allows arts-related improvements, it's not an automatic grant program. The common belief is that the Legislature might give preference to projects related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics over the arts.

With UMKC counting on matching funds, the always unpredictable state Legislature becomes a critical component of the financing for the proposed Downtown Arts Campus. Given a quirky Legislature - where rural lawmakers have outsized influence and where Kansas City has traditionally not fared well - $25 million is a lot to raise.

Morton is undaunted. "This is the most giving community, per capita, in the world," Morton tells The Pitch.
That's true. UMKC just opened a $32 million building, financed by H&R Block founder Henry Bloch, to serve as the university's management school. The Hall Family Foundation has promised to donate $75 million to construct a new building at Children's Mercy Hospital for medical research if Jackson County voters approve that sales-tax increase in November. And there's Kauffman's challenge grant. Yet these developments are banking on the same few wealthy Kansas City families: the Halls, the Blochs and the Kauffmans.

Morton says he has much of the $25 million "teed up."

He means that the university has made donation requests to various organizations and individuals who might contribute to the Downtown Arts Campus. But, on things like this, it takes awhile to hear back.

Add a comment