There were a lot of promises made during the bistate campaign 20 years ago. I should know. I was one of those who made them.
Kansas City attorney Jack Craft and I co-chaired the campaign to restore Union Station and create Science City. Four metro counties — all but Wyandotte County — passed the one-eighth-cent sales tax. Johnson County approved it with 60 percent; Jackson County, 70 percent; and strong majorities in Clay and Platte counties gave it a thumbs-up as well.
The campaign promised the 1/8 th-cent sales tax would abruptly end, as soon as $118 million was raised. That was about half the total cost for the renovation. The rest would come from private funds and federal grants.
Opponents were adamant that the tax would never end. They were dead wrong. About five years after the election, the tax ended.
The campaign also promised Union Station would stand on its own and require no public dollars to operate. It would be financially solvent because the world-class science center at Union Station, called Science City, would draw 1 million visitors a year and rake in enough bucks to pay for utilities, maintenance, management and upkeep costs. (A recent escalator replacement cost $600,000!)
In no year has Science City drawn anywhere near 1 million visitors. Last year, the attendance exceeded 200,000 — almost double from 2012 — and this year is on track to pass that number.
Besides the attendance estimate, Science City initially was a big disappointment. It was a flawed concept perpetrated by another so-called expert, who held a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and had been the No. 2 at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. He had all the credentials, but he didn’t have a clue as to what kids would want to do in his ill-conceived “city.”
From that harrowing start, Science City — I am thrilled to say — has morphed in recent years into a resounding success. Today, it has, indeed, become world-class, winning the international award for best visitor experience for a science center in its category. I was just there with my grandkids, and they were thrilled to spend hours exploring and learning. If you have not been back in years, you won’t believe what Science City has become. Union Station also stumbled out of the gate when it reopened in 1999. Because Science City did not meet projections, and because Union Station is really a free museum without any tax support, the managers kept it afloat by eating up a $40 million private endowment.
Things looked grim for years. Although the restoration itself was spectacular, the financial difficulties were an embarrassment. Those who came to visit loved what they saw but only stayed a few minutes because there was nothing to do.
All that changed with the arrival of George Guastello in 2008, who was hired to turn around the “white elephant.”
Guastello brought in successful traveling exhibits like the current Body Works blockbuster. At the same time, he leased out the ample empty office space upstairs. With Science City no longer being a financial drain, the trifecta of those three major changes — as well as major improvements to the planetarium and Extreme Screen movie theater — have brought bustle to Union Station and with it total financial stability.
What Guastello has accomplished is phenomenal. Union Station now pays its own way. Science City, as well, pays its way through admission fees and memberships. As important, today 1.5 million visitors come to Union Station each year. The bustle has arrived!
Admittedly, it appeared for a while that the skeptics might be right. It appeared our promises would be broken.
It took most of a couple of decades to fulfill the promises made in 1996, but it was well worth the wait.
Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist: firstname.lastname@example.org.