UMKC abandons plans for a downtown conservatory

UMKC is no longer looking to put a new conservatory of music and dance downtown. This is a 2015 drawing of the original downtown proposal.
UMKC is no longer looking to put a new conservatory of music and dance downtown. This is a 2015 drawing of the original downtown proposal. File photo

After years of promoting a vision of a downtown conservatory of music and dance, the University of Missouri-Kansas City announced Tuesday that it’s no longer interested.

Instead, UMKC wants to build a larger conservatory within 2.5 miles of the current one.

“As this process has evolved, our conversations with our own performing arts faculty and staff as well as potential development partners, donors and members of the artistic community have convinced us that proximity to the Volker campus must be an essential element of the new facility,” UMKC Chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal said in a statement Tuesday. “With that decision made, we can now move forward with a sharper focus to our planning and decision-making.”

But not everyone is happy with the change.

“We are disappointed …” Nathan Orr, chairman of the Downtown Council Board of Directors, and William Dietrich, the council’s president, said in a joint statement Tuesday afternoon. The council blames former Gov. Eric Greitens, who vetoed a bill to fund the downtown project.

“Despite years of collaboration, fundraising and lobbying, the conservatory move to downtown was ultimately derailed by the errant stroke of a pen in Jefferson City,” the statement said.

Now the conservatory will be built within these boundaries: roughly 30th Street on the north, Gregory Boulevard on the south, Elmwood Avenue on the east and State Line Road on the west.

The Kansas City Star

The latest iteration comes after the university has gained, and then lost, millions in funding for the project.

The concept of a downtown arts campus surfaced — with the downtown location as its major selling point — as part of the 2005 “Time to Get It Right” report to elevate UMKC to one of the top 20 universities in the country in the arts. It became one of the “Big 5” ideas supported by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce to remake Kansas City.

In 2013 the idea was pushed to the forefront when Julia Irene Kauffman, pledged $20 million from the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation, jump-starting the university’s drive to raise half the cost for the $96 million project, near the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway.

In spring 2017 the General Assembly approved up to $48 million in bonds to fulfill a promise for the state to match 50-50 the money the university raised. But Greitens vetoed that match.

In a visit to Kansas City last summer, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens defended his veto of a bill to provide $48 millions in bonds for the construction of a new UMKC art campus.

University officials vowed to raise the remaining funds on their own. But the $20 million Kauffman pledge was withdrawn, and the entire plan was in jeopardy of collapsing.

In May, UMKC announced it would consider building a conservatory on campus or downtown. It also was accepting proposals to renovate an existing building around town.

Since then, the university has received several proposals. Those who submitted plans for a facility outside the 2.5-mile radius were invited to submit new proposals by Sept. 18. The university is not accepting new first-time proposals.

The latest plans call for the new conservatory to be 225,000-250,000 square feet, costing in excess of $100 million, not including any land purchase. The new plan proposes a facility significantly larger than the former plan for a 165,000-square-foot conservatory and would include UMKC theater programs as well as music and dance, providing space for classrooms, performance, composition and research.

Both the new and the old plans called for a dramatic upgrade from the current conservatory, which totals about 54,000 square feet in three cramped and aged buildings in the Olson Performing Arts Center.

“Just like many others, I’ve been convinced that a new even bigger project close to campus is in the best interest of UMKC and its students,” said Greg Graves, former president of Burns and McDonnell and an early supporter of a new conservatory. “The No. 1 reason the conservatory project made our list of five big Ideas is the absolute need our city has for UMKC to continue to emerge as a great urban university. This project cements it.”

The Downtown Council said it still plans to work with UMKC officials in efforts to move the campus forward.

Related stories from Kansas City Star