An effort to secure state funds to help pay for the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s long-sought downtown arts campus cleared a big hurdle this week, winning the approval of the Missouri House Budget Committee.
But the funding’s fate remains unclear, as some conservative lawmakers question the wisdom of taking on more debt while the state faces a budget shortfall.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Noel Shull, a Kansas City Republican, would authorize the Missouri Health and Educational Facilities Authority to issue up to $48 million in bonds as the state’s share for UMKC’s $96 million effort to build its arts campus. It would be on the western edge of the Crossroads Arts District, just south of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
The state money would be used to match $48 million in pledged private donations, led by $20 million from Julia Irene Kauffman.
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“Economically,” Shull said, “it looks like a deal sent from heaven to get a $96 million building for a cost of $48 million.”
The bill advanced Thursday by the Budget Committee would spread the cost of the project over 10 years, costing the state roughly $5.5 million a year.
The project is a top legislative priority for Kansas City lawmakers and civic leaders. At a hearing on the proposal last week, lawmakers heard testimony in support from UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton, Kansas City Southern executive Warren Erdman, City Manager Troy Schulte, Truman Medical Centers CEO Charlie Shields and former HNTB Corp. president Scott Smith.
Erdman told The Star that relocating the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance downtown not only would ensure it remains a nationally recognized program, but also provide a boost to the city itself.
“We’ve got quite a renaissance of development underway in downtown Kansas City,” he said. “This project leverages the economic growth by bringing all those students, a perpetual fountain of youth, downtown.”
He also sees the proximity to the Kauffman Center as a selling point.
“They’d share the same parking garage that the city built, and students would have the opportunity to perform at the Kauffman Center,” Erdman said. “Just as Juilliard and the Lincoln Center in New York City are co-located and co-branded, the Kauffman Center could do something similar.”
Not everyone is convinced.
State Rep. Kurt Bahr, a St. Charles Republican, serves as chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that handles state debt. He said he can’t support anything that would add debt to the state budget at a time when lawmakers are struggling to find money for roads, schools and health care.
“The project itself is a great idea. I have no problem with the concept,” he said. “But right now, I’m trying to come up with $74,000 to help prosecuting attorneys get training to help them prosecute child sex offenders. I’m looking for $74,000, and we want $48 million for a concert hall? It sounds like a good idea, but when we are trying to nickel and dime to protect kids against sexual abusers, I have a hard time supporting it.”
The bill has 84 co-sponsors in the House — two more than the number of votes needed for it to pass.
“So on the House side, I feel very confident,” Shull said.
The real challenge, proponents of the project concede, will be in the Senate, where opposition to adding more debt to the state budget from even a handful of Republicans could derail its momentum.
Senators contacted by The Star said they had not yet been briefed on the bonding proposal and thus declined to comment.
Despite the long road ahead, university officials and Kansas City lawmakers remain optimistic the legislation will get across the finish line.
“UMKC is hopeful,” said the university’s spokesman, John Martellaro, “that the Missouri legislature will recognize the immense statewide value of the UMKC conservatory and approve state funding to match the private money that the university has raised.”