Outpouring needed to fix many KC fountains

Kansas City loves being the City of Fountains — but many of those fountains need a lot more than love.

The Seville Light Fountain at the 47th Street entrance to the Country Club Plaza doesn’t work and needs an estimated half-million dollars in repairs. The J.C. Nichols Fountain in Mill Creek Park near the Plaza, perhaps Kansas City’s best-known waterwork, requires repairs estimated at $245,000.

In fact, of the 48 public fountains in the city’s inventory, about half need attention to prevent further deterioration, said Mark McHenry, the city’s director of parks and recreation.

“The longer it goes, the worse it gets,” said McHenry, who noted that many of Kansas City’s fountains are 50 years old or older.

The city is starting to do its part with a budget proposal that includes $250,000 in taxpayer support specifically for fountain repairs. But that’s not nearly enough, according to the City of Fountains Foundation, a nonprofit group that is about to launch a major fundraising effort to supplement the tax dollars.

“We all love our fountains, but we often take them for granted,” said Pat O’Neill, a foundation board member who will help with the campaign. “I think it’ll be well-received. Those fountains and our statuary are really signature pieces of our community.”

But why seek donations? Didn’t voters pass a half-cent sales tax increase for parks in August?

The sales tax money will help cover routine maintenance, and this is not like 2010, when the Parks and Recreation Department wasn’t even sure it would have the money to turn the fountains on. This year, the fountains will begin operating April 9.

The parks department expects to have money to cover electricity, cleaning and basic repairs but not the bigger fixes.

City Manager Troy Schulte is recommending another $250,000. But even then, it won’t be enough, McHenry said. A preliminary estimate for repairs on just five deteriorating fountains exceeds $1 million.

Among those needing major attention are the Volker Memorial Fountain at Volker Boulevard and Oak Street; the Delbert Haff Fountain at the Meyer Boulevard entrance to Swope Park; and the Spirit of Freedom Fountain at Cleveland Avenue and Brush Creek Boulevard.

The City of Fountains Foundation was established in 1973 to raise money for new fountains and manage trust funds for individual fountains. A few newer fountains have their own endowments that cover some repairs, but the older fountains lack a dedicated source of support.

The foundation has decided to mount, for the first time, a fundraising campaign to address overall repairs, not one for a particular fountain. The exact goal has not been established.

Board member Anita Gorman said she realizes fountains may seem like a luxury when the city has so many needs, ranging from roads to sewers to crime prevention. But Gorman said she’s convinced fountains are a worthwhile mission because they are what Kansas City is known for across the country.

And there is a more compelling reason.

Gorman remembers helping to raise the money in 1983 to build the Northland Fountain at North Oak Trafficway and Vivion Road.

“We got a lot of criticism because there were poor people who needed money, and we were raising money for a fountain,” Gorman recalled. But then she went to a Salvation Army chili dinner and met a woman in need. Gorman said the woman asked her, “Aren’t you that fountain woman?” Gorman said she was, and the woman replied, “Thank you. It makes me feel better every time I go by it.”

Gorman never forgot that woman’s comment.

“These things are good,” she said of the city’s fountains. “They are for everybody. They’re not just for the well-to-do or the well-educated or the well-connected. They lift everybody.”

Officials with the fountain foundation expect other groups to help with specific fountains.

The Firefighters Memorial Fountain at West 31st Street and Broadway needs basin repairs, pipe work, improved lighting and other enhancements. That work can at least be partially funded through the city’s 1 Percent for Art program, said retired fire Capt. Joe Galetti, who is working with other firefighters and the city on the project.

The West Side Fountain at Southwest Boulevard and Summit Street has many broken tiles and chipped concrete. Jean-Paul Chaurand, a longtime West Side advocate and president of the Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners, has pledged to raise money for that fountain and the overall repair effort.

“What we could do is continue to put a Band-Aid on this stuff,” Chaurand said. “But let’s take care of it. Get (the fountains) in really good shape so the long-term maintenance won’t be so difficult.”

The fundraising campaign comes as the fountains foundation prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary. It plans a festival June 9 at the Henry Bloch Wollman Fountain outside Union Station, to showcase the city’s fountains and encourage contributions.

While Gorman, O’Neill and other foundation board members prepare to launch their fundraising effort, they also call attention to a new book devoted to the fountains. Titled “The City of Fountains: Kansas City’s Legacy of Beauty and Motion,” it features photographs of more than 100 fountains, both public and private, throughout the area. A portion of the proceeds from the book, published by a division of The Kansas City Star, benefits the fountains fund.