Plans for a University of Missouri-Kansas City Downtown Conservatory have taken a tremendous blow, with a main contributor pulling a pledge to fund nearly a fourth of the $96 million project.
The Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation has withdrawn its $20 million pledge, a move that could set back, if not jeopardize, the project. It has been billed as a big boost to the cultural and economic development of downtown Kansas City.
News reports indicate the Kauffman Foundation made the decision months ago after Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens backed out on a state promise to fund half the conservatory cost by matching $48 million raised by the university. The foundation hasn’t responded to requests for comment.
CitySceneKC, an online news site, reported that Kauffman decided the project was no longer viable. But other local supporters say they’re still committed to finding the money to make it a reality.
“I still think that this is a terrific idea,” said Greg Graves, whose Graves Family Foundation is one of several that pledged money to the project early on.
UMKC officials said while the project has met a tough setback, it is far from sunk.
“To paraphrase a famous quote, reports of the death of our UMKC Conservatory project are greatly exaggerated,” Barbara A. Bichelmeyer, interim chancellor and provost of UMKC, said in a statement to The Star.
“While we have been facing headwinds since we lost a state match this past summer, we have been hard at work, with renewed energy as we develop new ideas on how we might accomplish the project. Rest assured, it continues to move forward.”
While Graves was serving as president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, the downtown conservatory was among the chamber’s “Big 5” proposed goals to remake Kansas City.
Julia Irene Kauffman, daughter of Muriel Kauffman and Ewing Kauffman, the former owner of the Kansas City Royals, made the $20 million foundation pledge for the Downtown Conservatory in 2013. It helped jump-start the university’s drive to raise its portion.
In the spring of 2017 the General Assembly passed a bill to issue up to $48 million in bonds for the project, planned for a site near the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
But Greitens then announced he would veto the bonds, reneging on the state match despite support from Missouri legislators. University officials said they would take up the torch in a campaign to raise the remaining funds on their own.
UM System President Mun Choi said in a statement in June 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.”
That announcement made raising the money more of a university system-wide effort rather than one resting solely on the shoulders of the Kansas City campus.
And system officials said then that shifting away from depending on state bonds would speed up the project because it would not rely on budget decisions by the legislature and governor.
The plan calls for moving the university’s Conservatory of Music and Dance from the Volker campus to a downtown location bounded by Broadway, Central, 17th and 18th streets just south of the Kauffman Center.
Local supporters are still optimistic the project will move forward.
“We remain committed to our Big 5 vision of creating a new downtown campus for the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s renowned Conservatory of Music and Dance,” Joe Reardon, president and chief executive officer of the chamber of commerce, told The Star Friday afternoon.
“The new campus would add even more impetus to the growth and energy of downtown, bringing a constant stream of young students and performers to the site adjacent to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. It is in Kansas City’s collective interest to see this project through.”
Reardon said that while it was “unfortunate that our original plan for state support did not come through as we envisioned. We still believe in and are committed to this project.”
Graves, who said he is committed to “working until the last moment before ever giving up,” also noted that like the Kauffman pledge, all the early pledged financial gifts were made contingent on the state match.
“So I don’t blame the Kauffman Foundation at all,” he said. “I think it is safe to say that those who have already pledged and those considering a pledge now will wait to see what plan B UMKC puts together.”
Bichelmeyer, in her statement, urged supporters to “keep the faith,” adding that “together, we will make this happen.”