Government & Politics

UMKC vows to find all $96 million for downtown arts campus without state help ahead of veto

University of Missouri System officials touted plans Wednesday to raise money for building a downtown Kansas City arts campus without matching funds from the state.

The announcement came hours before Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens vetoed a plan to underwrite half the construction costs with state money.

But UM and University of Missouri-Kansas City officials said they were braced to find other ways to raise the full $96 million they want to build the campus — shifting some dollars from elsewhere across the UM System and raising more private donations. Their specifics on that added funding will come in the fall.

UM System President Mun Choi said in a news release “that details of the financial plans for the $96 million construction project and the $2 million operating costs are being developed without reliance on state funding. These plans will be presented for approval to the Board of Curators at the September meeting.”

This spring, the General Assembly passed a bill to issue up to $48 million in bonds for the arts campus near the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Backers of the plan feared that a veto would jeopardize $48 million in pledges from private sources, including $20 million from Julia Irene Kauffman. City Hall had also pledged $7 million toward the campus.

Without state money, proponents feared, the entire project might dissolve.

Capitol watchers broadly suspected the conservative Republican governor was bound to say no. He had not included the funding in his proposed budget.

About four hours after the university brass said it would pass on the state money, Greitens’ office posted on the governor’s Facebook page a picture of a bill with “veto” stamped across it.

“Politicians … passed a bill that would put taxpayers on the hook for over $75 million to build and run a conservatory for dancers and art students,” the statement said. “I’m ready to fight them on this. … You know who would have to pay that bill? You. Missouri families. I think that’s wrong.”

He appeared to take credit for the curators’ decision to bypass state funding, saying “they don’t want any additional taxpayer money to pay for a conservatory. Instead, they’ve committed to develop a detailed plan to pay for it by making tough budget decisions and using private funds along with strong leaders in the Kansas City community. … That’s how it should be.”

Wednesday’s announcement hinted that the curators shared Greitens’ view: a project targeted for downtown Kansas City ought to be paid for with Kansas City, not Missouri, dollars.

By beating Greitens to the punch and pushing a plan without state matching funds, the university system’s governing body sought to avoid a sense of doom for the project that the veto might signal. It also gave the governor political cover on a move that could anger Kansas City voters toward the Republican chief executive.

The curators made clear in their news release that existing pledges — made with the belief that the state would match contributions dollar for dollar — held firm. For instance, it noted Kauffman would still back the arts campus.

“The Downtown Arts Campus will be a critical element of our performing arts community,” Kauffman said in the release. “It needs to happen.”

The release said a “new funding mechanism would honor and preserve those pledges by delivering matching funds.”

The MU Board of Curators and system officials said in the release that they “will develop plans for an alternative funding match … rather than seek funding from the state under the 50-50 matching program for capital projects.”

UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton had viewed the new arts campus as a signature achievement of his tenure. He said in a statement he’ll still retire at the end of the 2018 spring semester and remained “optimistic that the project will move forward as envisioned.”

The money, he said, would come from the “reallocation of resources at both the UM System and UMKC level.”

“We understand the various financial challenges facing the state and believe that this action will help us start construction sooner,” Morton said in a statement released by UMKC.

In an interview, UM system and curators spokesman Christian Basi said the shift away from state bonds aims to speed up the project. Even if the governor had signed the bond authorization, UMKC would still have been at the mercy of future budget decisions by the legislature and the governor, he said.

By taking on full responsibility for piecing together a funding package, Basi said, UMKC would increase its chances of starting construction earlier and avoiding inflation in building costs.

Administrators have not yet figured out how much they might cut other programs or what portion of the remaining $48 million would be filled by shifting dollars from other school projects, he said, and what part would come from added private fundraising.

The arts campus project was seen in many corners as a potential game changer both for downtown Kansas City and for UMKC. Putting art students in the city’s revitalized center has been pitched as a way to maintain momentum for downtown development, and for the university to further capitalize on its urban location.

That’s why lawmakers from the region put the arts campus bonds atop their list of legislative priorities this year.

Boosters of the arts campus talked about the shift away from state help, and the governor’s veto, in upbeat terms along with muted disappointment.

Joe Reardon, the president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that the business group “welcomes (the) expression of support by the University of Missouri System for the proposed downtown UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance facility.”

That same statement, issued before Greitens veto, also said the Chamber “will await the funding details for this alternative plan before commenting, and we hope the Governor will allow (the bond legislation) to become law so this important option can still be available if needed in the future.”

The arts campus was among the “Big 5” goals the chamber had proposed to remake Kansas City when Greg Graves was its chairman. On Wednesday, Graves spoke about the move as a way to hurry up the project but said “I’m disappointed in the state government for not meeting its end of the bargain.”

He pushed back on the perception that state funding would amount to a pork barrel project for Kansas City.

“UMKC is the arts campus of the UM system. So to the extent that we can expand the arts program it is good for the system, which is good for the state,” said Graves, the retired chairman and CEO of Burns & McDonnell. “It’s great for downtown, which is why we raised half the dollars.”

The proposed campus has been touted as the best chance of creating “the Juilliard of the West.” The Kauffman Center would be to UMKC what New York City’s Lincoln Center is to the Juilliard School of performing arts.

With the arts campus would come scores of students, bringing young and creative people downtown. They’d mix with office workers and fill the commercial Power & Light District and the more organic Crossroads area. The campus is proposed for a block south of the Kauffman Center.

The Missouri House passed the funding match legislation with little opposition. The plan faced some anxiety in the Senate over spending scarce state dollars on something that would be a boon for central Kansas City but offer at best marginal benefits for the rest of the Missouri.

Passage of the bond funding was seen in Jefferson City as a hard-won victory both for Kansas City and the UM system. That left some factions flummoxed when the curators flinched at the possibility of a Greitens veto.

“If you turn down state money, then I’m very interested in seeing your plan (for the funding the arts campus) in September,” said state Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat. “If the university does follow through and we do get the assets on an accelerated time frame, then we’re happy. … But I want to see them vote for this in September or explain why they’re not going ahead.”

The Star’s Lynn Horsley contributed to this report.