Editorials

Greitens bears responsibility for the latest blow to UMKC downtown conservatory

A vital $20 million pledge from the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation for Kansas City’s planned downtown arts campus will not come to fruition. Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens is to blame.
A vital $20 million pledge from the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation for Kansas City’s planned downtown arts campus will not come to fruition. Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens is to blame. The Kansas City Star

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ disdain for higher education and Kansas City’s arts community continues to have consequences.

The loss this time is substantial. A $20 million pledge from the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation for the planned downtown arts campus will not come to fruition. And it appears that the specifics and the scale of the project might change.

Last year, Greitens put the planned $96 million campus in grave jeopardy when he vetoed legislation that would have fulfilled the state’s promise of matching the $48 million raised by the Kansas City philanthropic community.

At the time, civic leadership accepted the reality that our governor does not understand the economic benefits of the arts in urban centers, especially as it relates to higher education. Local leaders vowed to find the funding elsewhere.

But the Kauffman grant was always contingent upon both the funding matches from the state and from private fundraising, said Dave Lady, president of the foundation. The governor’s veto meant that those requirements would be impossible to meet, and eventually, the board had to make a decision.

“It just became apparent that it was fundamentally a different project,” Lady said, adding that the board remains supportive of the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance.

This blow to UMKC is just one example of the governor’s determined efforts to destabilize the University of Missouri System and of his refusal to be a partner in development in one of the state’s two major cities. Greitens declined to keep the state’s commitment to the arts campus, and he ignored the legislature’s wish to raise the funds by issuing bonds.

The campus was to be adjacent to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and was to house the conservatory of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, shifting it downtown. The plan was for 165,000 square feet, four floors and two state-of-the-art performance spaces.

On Friday, UMKC and University of Missouri System leadership emphasized that efforts are continuing to “develop new ideas on how we might accomplish the project.”

Announcements around “new developments” can be expected soon, Barbara A. Bichelmeyer, UMKC’s interim chancellor and provost, and Mun Choi, president of the UM system, wrote in a guest column for The Star.

But what is indisputable is that the governor continues to threaten not just this project, but Missouri higher education in general. UMKC has lost $12.6 million through budget cuts in recent years, and the entire system has lost $70.6 million.

The value of a well-educated workforce apparently escapes the governor. Kansas City, like the entire state, must have a readily employable talent pool to continue attracting new businesses and to keep Missouri healthy fiscally.

This is becoming increasingly difficult with an underfunded educational system.

The arts play a role not only in driving economic development but also in attracting new residents.

The arts campus was enthusiastically embraced by a wide cross-section of political, civic and philanthropic leadership. The project was a part of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s Big 5 initiatives. It should have been an easy “yes” for the governor to add his support.

No one would describe the gleaming beauty of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts as merely concrete and glass. Yet during a visit to Kansas City last year, Greitens condescendingly termed the arts campus a “building for dancers and artists,” dismissing the fact that a well-developed artistic community often helps cities attract educated millennials. The campus was to be much more than bricks and mortar.

The governor’s stubborn reluctance to acknowledge the economic benefits of the arts could cost Kansas City dearly.

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