Editorial: UMKC arts campus deserves consideration in Missouri budget

Artist’s rendering of Arts Campus
Artist’s rendering of Arts Campus File photo

Many Kansas Citians are understandably disappointed that Gov. Eric Greitens’ first budget leaves out state funding for a new downtown arts campus for the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Local boosters have pushed the campus for five years. The idea: build a structure near the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts that would serve as the home for the university’s Conservatory of Music and Dance. A downtown arts campus would bring students and jobs to the center city, not to mention energy and urban renewal.

The building would cost an estimated $96 million. Kansas Citians have already promised $48 million in land and financial assistance for the structure, and, under existing law, the state of Missouri can provide the rest.

University officials believe they have a commitment for the funds. The University of Missouri Board of Curators has formally asked the state for the matching money. The Kansas City Council and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce have put the $48 million at the top of their legislative priority lists this year. Yet Greitens’ budget, released Thursday, didn’t contain a dime for the project.

All is not lost. Last week, Missouri state Rep. Noel Shull, a Clay County Republican, introduced a resolution calling for the state to borrow its $48 million share. The revenue bonds would be issued by 2020 and paid back over time, up to 20 years.

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That would cost about $3.5 million a year.

We understand the budget crunch facing Missouri and other states. Demands for taxpayer money abound, and arts campus supporters must get in line like everyone else. It’s hard to defend $48 million all at once when state workers are asked to forgo raises.

Including an up-front arts campus allocation in the governor’s budget also could draw criticism and activate competing interests. Rural areas might squawk, while cities such as St. Louis would almost certainly seek a similar amount for brick-and-mortar projects. And, at a time when the city faces problems with violent crime, struggling schools and neighborhoods, and a crumbling infrastructure, spending taxpayer cash on an arts facility could raise questions about Kansas City’s priorities.

But great cities — and great states — are more than just police officers and stoplights. The governor says he wants to attract jobs to Missouri, but employers and their employees want to live and work in dynamic places with lively attractions and entertainment venues. An arts campus in Kansas City would attract businesses and people.

If allocating the full $48 million match is impossible this year, lawmakers and the governor should work to find at least some cash for the project. Shull’s approach is promising, although borrowing the state’s share means additional costs for interest and issuance expenses. Perhaps there are alternatives.

That kind of commitment would also help dispel a more disturbing suggestion that Greitens is anti-city and anti-higher education. He has cut millions from the budgets of colleges and universities and has grumbled about projects in St. Louis.

We don’t think the anti-city label is appropriate. That said, the governor should remember that Kansas Citians are Missourians too, and they send millions in tax dollars to Jefferson City every year.

Public support for an important downtown project here would be a signal he understands that.

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