Government & Politics

As Gov. Greitens remains silent on UMKC downtown arts campus, some start to worry

The University of Missouri-Kansas City’s downtown arts campus would be built just south of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The block is bounded by Broadway, Central, 17th and 18th streets.
The University of Missouri-Kansas City’s downtown arts campus would be built just south of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The block is bounded by Broadway, Central, 17th and 18th streets.

Legislation providing millions in state funds to help pay for the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s long-sought downtown arts campus is sitting on Gov. Eric Greitens’ desk.

And he’s not offering hints about what he plans to do.

If he signs it, the state would be authorized to issue up to $48 million in bonds as the state’s share of UMKC’s $96 million effort to build its arts campus. If he vetoes it, the $48 million in pledged private donations — led by $20 million from Julia Irene Kauffman — and the project itself could be put in jeopardy.

The first-term Republican didn’t take a public position on the issue during the legislative session, and in the months since the bill was passed, he hasn’t indicated his intentions to either Kansas City civic leaders or state lawmakers.

He has until July 14 to make a decision. Yet the silence from the governor’s office has many feeling nervous that the bill, despite overcoming major hurdles to get through a skeptical Missouri General Assembly, remains very much up in the air.

“I would certainly encourage people who are concerned to reach out to the governor and urge him to sign it,” said Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican. “If the governor is really concerned about economic development and moving the state forward, it should be a no-brainer for him to sign it.”

Rep. Noel Shull, a Liberty Republican who sponsored the legislation, said he hasn’t gotten any indication about what the governor plans to do.

“I’m hopeful he signs it,” he said. “He hasn’t told me he’s going to. But he hasn’t said he’s not going to.”

Contacted by The Star about where the governor stands on the issue, Greitens spokesman Parker Briden said in an email: “We’re reviewing every line of the budget to ensure that no tax dollars go to waste.”

The project was among the top priorities for Kansas City lawmakers and civic leaders during the 2017 legislative session. Proponents said it stands a chance of creating “the Juilliard of the West” because it will have a symbiotic relationship with the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, just as Juilliard has a close relationship with Lincoln Center in New York City.

The campus would also bring a steady stream of college and graduate students to downtown, they say, increasing the area’s vitality and vibrancy.

It would be built on the block just south of the Kauffman Center.

The legislation sailed through the Missouri House. But it ran into opposition in the Senate among conservative Republicans who questioned the wisdom of adding more debt to the state budget without providing substantive benefits beyond Kansas City.

Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican, said he had considered a filibuster to block the legislation but was “talked down” by Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat and one of the project’s most outspoken advocates.

Despite letting the bill pass, Schaaf and others continued to express concerns.

“If I were to choose where I wanted my $48 million to go, it wouldn’t be to build a conservatory,” Schaaf said during Senate debate. “It would probably go to something like transportation, to building some new roads. I think the state needs new roads more than it needs a new conservatory.”

Bill Dietrich, president of the Downtown Council, said his organization and many others have sent letters in support of the legislation to the governor’s office. They also asked whether the governor would like to meet with them to discuss the project.

He said he’s not aware of any meeting taking place.

“We are all remaining optimistic that he’ll sign it for all the right reasons,” Dietrich said. “It’s a $96 million asset for the state, for $48 million. It creates a rare cultural asset. It lifts the UMKC conservatory into the upper echelons of conservatories in the nation.”

Warren Erdman, a prominent Republican and Kansas City civic leader who championed the conservatory’s cause, said he didn’t know which way the governor was leaning. He, too, has reached out to the governor’s office in support of the legislation.

“I’m optimistic,” he said, “but I have no information one way or the other.”

Kansas City Councilwoman Jolie Justus, a former state senator, said she also has not heard what the governor intends to do. City Manager Troy Schulte said City Hall was not playing a role in reaching out to the governor because “I don’t think that helps if we do it.

“He (the governor) has to hear from the business community how this is important,” Schulte said.

Both the Missouri House and Senate approved the legislation with majorities large enough to override a veto. But if the governor did oppose the bill, he could likely peel off enough support to sustain a veto.

Sam Panettiere, who works with Kansas City’s lobbying team in Jefferson City, said the reason so many lawmakers voted in support of the project is because they recognized “what a strategic investment it would be for the state.”

“It is our hope the governor also recognizes the need for the new facility, and capitalizes on the local $48 million raised for the purposes of a downtown arts campus — a new state asset at half the cost to the state,” he said.

Asked about the impact to a downtown conservatory if the governor vetoes the bill, UMKC spokesman John Martellaro declined to comment, saying the university didn’t want to “participate in hypothetical exercises.”

Silvey said he would be “highly shocked” if Greitens vetoes the bill.

“The fact that Kansas City was able to come together as a community and raise $48 million tells you how important it is,” Silvey said. “A veto would be a devastating message to send to Kansas City.”

The Star’s Mará Rose Williams contributed to this story.

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley