commentary
May 6, 2005

 

Kauffman Foundation earns the
Chapped Hide and Doggie Doodoo Prize


by Patrick Dobson

It’s tough to give philanthropic organizations and individuals heat for their actions. They do a lot of building and a lot of donating. But it’s not generally money freely given.

The land south of downtown where the Performing Arts Center"was" going to be built. (photo by Patrick Dobson)

This city’s players give to buy powerful positions in the decision-making processes of the groups and organizations they buy into. That’s not what they say, out loud anyway. But that’s the outcome of their largess.

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 don’t deliver on the promises they make. That’s 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 city’s 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 city’s 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 Foundation’s non-presence.

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 isn’t 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 city’s 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 area’s 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 assistance.

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 city’s interests from the Foundation and plugging its Performing Arts Center.

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 city’s money in a way that would promote the city — he wanted to build the city’s parking garage for the center a block away from the center instead of next to it. It’s 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 city’s small but powerful elite, he essentially told the center’s 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 center’s groundbreaking, May 2.

In other words, the Kauffman Foundation made a killing. And they did it on the absence of the mayor’s spine and the backing of the city’s newspaper that rarely, if ever, has a critical word for any of the city’s 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 city’s 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 doesn’t have access to this resource. The result is just more greenspace, an addition to the many vast grassy voids stretching across the urban interior.

Who’s the loser then?

The city, which engineered the land taking and consolidation for the Performing Arts Center at the behest of the city’s 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. It’s 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). Costco’s 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 city’s 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 it’s 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: poetrysheet@earthlink.net.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at poetrysheet@earthlink.net.


              
              
                 

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