May 6, 2005
Kauffman Foundation earns the
Its tough to give philanthropic organizations and individuals
heat for their actions. They do a lot of building and a lot of donating.
But its not generally money freely given.
This citys players give to buy powerful positions in the decision-making
processes of the groups and organizations they buy into. Thats
not what they say, out loud anyway. But thats the outcome of
Kansas Citians are the worst about depending on the few players the
city has come to inherit. We have repeatedly put our lot into their
hands. But those hands need to be slapped from time to time, particularly
when they dont deliver on the promises they make. Thats
why, the movers behind the allege Performing Arts Center deserve derision,
castigation and a little forced humility and the less-than-prestigious
Chapped Hide and Doggie Doodoo Prize.
The Muriel Kauffman Foundation receives the award (from me) for holding
a piece of the citys core hostage for the last eight years,
and then profiteering from it.
In 1999, the Foundation hunkered down on a 17.5-acre hunk of the
citys core at between Broadway and Baltimore, and 16th and 17th
streets. There, Julia Irene Kauffman and the Foundation promised to
build the yet-delivered Kauffman Performing Arts Center. Ms. Kauffman
pledged $105 million for the then-estimated $304 million center, providing
private citizens and other charities would cough up the remainder.
Then the land went from rows of deteriorating buildings to open field
a hole in the heart of a neighborhood that moved forward alone
but not nearly as robustly as it could have given the Foundations
The Foundation and its subsidiary Performing Arts Center Holdings,
Inc has looked for donations to build the center; it has failed to
reach its goals so far. And while its fund-raising strategy isnt
working, inflation, building supply prices and estimated labor costs
increase the amount the Foundation needs to build the center, putting
it farther and farther behind.
The Performing Arts Center land remains a vast grassy hillside, void
of infrastructure and people. But there is quite a bit of life on
the hillside. Rabbits, rats, raptors and birds have found a place
in the center of the city. Dogs with owners in tow dig after the rats
and chase the rabbits. Birds drop a variety of plant seed, breaking
up the grass. The space provides shelter for some of the citys
homeless and downtrodden.
These are all good things but they, too, are reminders of the devastation
and decay the wealthy few wreak in the ambitions and designs of a
city and its residents. The Performing Arts Center land sits in a
neighborhood generating interest outside promises of tax abatement
and other incentives. To the south, the Crossroads continues to attract
private investment and is the center for many established and new
businesses, and professional offices, even if the areas anti-mainstream
feel (which got the game started) continues to abate.
To the east, new businesses open, established businesses flourish,
and condominium developments advance at a rapid rate. The same is
true along Broadway and to the west in the newly chic Westside.
Despite the wildlife, doggie running and homeless, land held vacant
in the heart of a city discourages diverse business and denser population
concentrations that really seem to work in urban areas without public
Mayor Kay Barnes had been an ardent, if flailing, supporter of the
center. Caught between the capital and development interests of the
city, and the promises of the build-it-and-we-will-come center and
its backers, she seems to inhabit a perpetual limbo of protecting
the citys interests from the Foundation and plugging its Performing
The only person with any backbone in the back-and-forth between the
city and the Foundation is City Manager Wayne Cauthen. Late last year,
he became firm on spending the citys money in a way that would
promote the city he wanted to build the citys parking
garage for the center a block away from the center instead of next
to it. Its a block of potential capital development Julia, the
Foundation nor their backers wanted to walk. So, in a ballsy move
unfamiliar to Kansas Citians and an affront to the citys small
but powerful elite, he essentially told the centers backers
to piss up a rope.
But the Muriel Kauffman Foundation seems to have come back with middle
finger aloft. After years of sitting on this land, the Foundation
just made a deal with the city that may well fetch the Foundation
back over two-thirds of their initial $19 million investment. Under
pressure to build the voter-approved Bartle Hall ballroom, the city
opted to pay the Foundation $13.5 million for about a third of the
17.5 acres of the vacant ground in addition to a pledge of
$25 million for the center should the Foundation decide to build the
Performing Arts Center at the present site of the Lyric Theater. Oddly,
this happened around the time scheduled for the centers groundbreaking,
In other words, the Kauffman Foundation made a killing. And they
did it on the absence of the mayors spine and the backing of
the citys newspaper that rarely, if ever, has a critical word
for any of the citys small, incestuous group of major players.
Vacant land also reminds Kansas Citians who has power and who does
not. Coming out of the Westside at 17th and Broadway, citizens are
faced with the empty promises of the citys movers and shakers.
Wealth drives the decisions the city has to make here, not individual
enterprise. The small-timer or private citizen interested in a building
a residence or expanding on the good things happening all around doesnt
have access to this resource. The result is just more greenspace,
an addition to the many vast grassy voids stretching across the urban
Whos the loser then?
The city, which engineered the land taking and consolidation for
the Performing Arts Center at the behest of the citys powerful
and now has to pay dearly to do taxpayers bidding? Neighbors
and small businesses that have had to deal with the deleterious effects
of having nothing where much should be? Or is it the larger citizenry
who put their power in the hands of a wealthy few and now have nothing
to show for their trust?
Such nonsense has happened before: the Sailors Project, the UMKC
Research Park and the Midtown Marketplace (Glover) Plan, to name a
few. In each case, neighborhoods turned into large tracts of vacant
land and remained so for years and years in the interest of something
better. Whether those somethings were actually better
is a matter of opinion. For instance, Costco wound up at the site
of the Glover Plan. Its a good company (its CEO paid just under
$400,000 a year and a Costco shopper himself) that treats its employees
with dignity (offset, sadly, by the rapacious employment practices
of Home Depot next door). Costcos a great place to buy stuff.
But are parking lots and cars really better than a diverse neighborhood
filled with people, small business and retail?
However people come down on the Glover Plan issue, the truth remains
that each of these projects were sold as one thing and wound up something
completely different. The Performing Arts Center will be the same.
It will again represent the consolidation of the citys sovereign
powers and the citizens decision making into the hands of a
few, wealthy individuals.
In the end, the Performing Arts Center will wind up where it should
have been considered in the first place in the heart of a growing
downtown. Julia will spend her money building it. And the Kauffman
Foundation will make even more money selling bits and pieces of the
land at greatly inflated prices to those who really need it.
But did it need to go this way? Kansas Citians are notoriously trustful
of the few big players who have bought their places in the elite.
And its too bad. We need to start putting a little of that trust
into the people who really make the city, its core and its downtown
thrive: The people who pay the taxes, make the wheels move and work
for the players us.
Julia Irene or the Muriel Kauffman Foundation can contact me at the following email to arrange delivery of their award: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Dobson can be contacted at email@example.com.
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