Supporters of a $96 million downtown arts campus for the University of Missouri-Kansas City executed an abrupt pirouette Wednesday, dancing away from direct state funding for the high-profile project.
UMKC has already raised $48 million for the campus from private donors. The school expected the state of Missouri to provide the other $48 million, which it promised to do.
But Gov. Eric Greitens hemmed and hawed for weeks, refusing to sign a bill providing the funds. Finally, on Wednesday, he vetoed the legislation, leaving the school’s boosters to explore other ways to come up with the cash.
For Kansas Citians who have worked tirelessly on the downtown project, the news was undoubtedly frustrating. Local supporters sought private donations, believing that Missouri would honor its commitment.
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Greitens left UMKC in the lurch. But his decision could be an opportunity for the university and a lesson for the rest of us.
It’s now clear that the governor has no interest in partnering with the state’s urban communities. In a strikingly combative statement, Greitens said he was acting as a “budget hawk” to stop state participation in the project. He declared himself ready to fight politicians who are addicted to spending taxpayer money.
It would have been nice to hear his views during the session. But Greitens continues to govern in the dark, limiting his public pronouncements to Facebook messages and carefully scripted appearances designed to raise his presidential profile.
Greitens spent last weekend with billionaire Charles Koch in Colorado. UMKC’s future probably didn’t come up.
We now know efforts by Kansas City or St. Louis to appease the governor will fail. Both cities must move from a posture of wary negotiation to more active advocacy for urban interests — on crime control, the minimum wage, education, transportation, taxation and a host of other issues.
State funding for Bartle Hall and the Truman Sports Complex, roughly $5 million annually, is a particular concern. Those long-term commitments could be in jeopardy.
Kansas City should begin planning for more local funding of both assets if necessary.
For UMKC, the path forward seems equally clear. The school must accelerate efforts to operate outside of state control.
The arts should remain a primary focus at UMKC. Kansas Citians should embrace that goal and encourage it (including support for the school’s theater arts program, by the way).
Five years ago, the school thought about dropping the word “Missouri” from its name and going back to its old name, the University of Kansas City. The idea seemed silly at the time.
But support for higher education in Missouri is under enormous pressure. Colleges and universities must increasingly rely on local efforts to remain healthy, and UMKC is no exception.
Wednesday’s announcement helps us all remember that fact.
UMKC must now focus on its mission and find the $48 million it needs for the arts campus.
Kansas Citians, meanwhile, should appreciate the value of a major university in our midst.
A university of and for Kansas City isn’t so silly after all.