Why KC’s civic elite won’t fund $800 million research plan

09/25/2013 8:46 PM

09/25/2013 8:46 PM

In the mid-1990s Jim and Virginia Stowers revealed the exciting news that they would spend a fortune funding medical research in Kansas City.

They established the now nationally recognized Stowers Institute for Medical Research. It benefits from an average of $70 million a year in support for basic scientific research, largely fueled by a multi-billion dollar pledge from the Stowers.

Contrast that munificence with this scene:

This fall a small group of civic elite hope a $1 million ad campaign will convince Jackson County voters to approve an $800 million, half-cent sales tax increase lasting 20 years.

The $40 million a year in public funds would support programs that try to translate basic research into drugs and devices that can diagnose or treat patients. This is a transformational moment for the region, some business executives say.

But they also make these claims:

• A regional tax can’t be put together for it (true).

• Federal funds can’t be counted on for a great deal of the research (less true).

• And the civic community is tapped out when it comes to backing large initiatives, all of which means it will be up to taxpayers in the fifth poorest county in the six-county region to make this happen.

Really?

The initiative that’s so important to civic leaders supposedly can’t be fueled financially by our wealthy foundations.

The list includes the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation ($1.7 billion), the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation ($1.1 billion) and the Hall Family Foundation ($800 million). Just 1 percent of their annual funding could provide $36 million a year for translational research.

However, community foundation donors pick their priorities, and it turns out translational research isn’t one of them.

And if the Hall Family Foundation gave larger annual amounts of money to translational research, a foundation board member said this week, that could reduce the group’s funding for important social programs. (The foundation, though, has pledged to help finance a $75 million research building if the tax passes.)

The new translational medicine initiative also supposedly can’t be financed to a greater degree by Children’s Mercy Hospital, which is in the midst of an $800 million building expansion in the region and would reap $20 million a year from the tax.

It supposedly can’t be helped in its funding by St. Luke’s Hospital, which recently completed a $330 million expansion with near-opulent medical buildings and would get $8 million annually from the tax.

The research plan’s funding reportedly can’t be pushed higher by the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which wants to build a $90 million downtown arts campus. UMKC would receive $8 million a year from the tax.

Instead, taxpayers are being asked to finance speculative scientific research in the same community where $366 million in private funds was raised to erect the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and fund an endowment. And $370 million was generated by a small band of wealthy donors for the Bloch Building expansion and a huge, new endowment for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

So it appears that — at least when it comes to translational research — many large participants in the business and medical communities are out of money after they have pursued other priorities.

Billions of dollars have been spent only to now find that a “transformational” moment has finally percolated to the top of the wish list for the civic elite and two medical institutions.

That’s simply not a winning argument for passing a hefty sales tax to pull in $800 million extra in public money.

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