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Bistate issue approved by healthy margins

DATE OF EVENT: Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1996

DATE PUBLISHED: Wednesday, Nov. 6, 1996, in The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: The bistate cultural tax, a sales-tax increase to raise funds to renovate Union Station, was thought to be one of the first, if not the first, of its kind in the country. After initial skepticism, voters approved it in all but Wyandotte County. Union Station and Science City opened three years later, in 1999.

In a historic union of Missouri and Kansas taxes, voters on both sides of the state line Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a sales tax to renovate Kansas City’s vacant Union Station into a science museum.

The bistate cultural tax, which needed majority votes in at least Jackson and Johnson counties to take effect, passed in four of the five counties in which it was on the ballot.

Urban Jackson County led the way with a two-thirds majority, and suburban Johnson, Clay and Platte counties reported comfortable margins of at least 60 percent. Wyandotte County rejected the measure.

In the atrium of the Pershing Square building next to Union Station, many bistate boosters celebrated while wearing station sweatshirts and with children in tow. “This is a great night,” declared Jack Craft, a Kansas City lawyer who helped mastermind the campaign.

“We will begin the next century with that magnificent building being restored.”

Said Richard King, a banker who is chairman of a nonprofit organization that owns the station: “The public sees Union Station as part of their heritage, just as they see the Chiefs as their team.”

Bistate opponents attributed the vote to this passion for the 82-year-old historic landmark, plus the big-money campaign that bistate boosters ran.

“It was a real David and Goliath battle,"” said Paul Styers, a Johnson County anti-tax crusader.

Meanwhile, Clay Chastain, a station activist who went to court to get his own plan on Kansas City’s ballot, raised the specter of challenging the vote. “The people went with the only choice they were allowed to vote on,” he said. “But constitutional and legal challenges lie ahead. I’m not going to say what that means right now.”

The election Tuesday fused two ideas that had languished for years: finding a popular use for Union Station and rectifying Kansas City’s standing as the largest city without a large-scale science museum.

Union Station’s plan involves placing the Kansas City Museum’s hands-on Science City under the North Waiting Room and in a new building adjacent to that room. The science museum also will offer a planetarium and big-screen movie theater.

The entire project is estimated to cost $234 million, with the bistate tax supplying $118 million and private and federal funds contributing the rest. A new regional entity, called a bistate commission, will serve as a watchdog over the money.

The next step is for the four counties, plus the cities of Kansas City, Overland Park, Independence and Olathe, to appoint members to the bistate commission. Also, the station’s owner promises that roof repairs will begin by the end of this month.

Around the country, several metropolitan areas have passed multicounty taxes. But this region’s new taxing district is thought to be the first to cross a state line. …

Just a few months ago, not many people thought the bistate tax stood a chance. ...

However, the issue apparently had strong support from the beginning. Opinion polls done for the campaign and The Kansas City Star showed majorities in each county were likely to approve the tax. And a Washington-based pollster told the campaign that bistate had the highest favorable ratings of any tax issue he’d ever seen.

The campaign saw its job as overcoming suburbanites’ wariness of aiding a Kansas City-based project and their suspicions of creating a new form of regional bureaucracy.

This was done with a two-pronged attack: Hundreds of private meetings with civic and neighborhood groups, plus a $1.2 million advertising blitz — a record for a local issue-oriented election. These explained how the tax would stop at $118 million and how Kansas City’s government would never control the project. …

Despite the election’s historic nature, the campaign hardly touched the issue of regional cooperation. But organized opponents brought it up repeatedly. They warned that Kansans couldn’t trust Missouri politicians.

In the end, though, the opponents couldn’t themselves overcome the public’s frustration that Union Station continued to crumble and decay.