By Kevin Collison
In a major setback to downtown’s cultural ambitions, the planned UMKC Downtown Conservatory has suffered a fatal financial blow, losing a $20 million private pledge essential to building the project, according to sources familiar with the endeavor.
The sources told CityScene KC that the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation has withdrawn its $20 million pledge after deciding the ambitious project as originally planned was no longer viable.
The withdrawal of the Kauffman pledge likely ends a quest to bring the renowned Conservatory downtown and next to the Kauffman Center, an effort endorsed by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce in 2011 as one of its “Big 5 Ideas.”
The decision came after the abrupt move last summer by Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens to ignore overwhelming approval from the Missouri General Assembly and veto $48 million in state funding for the $96 million project.
The governor derided the project as putting “taxpayers on the hook…to build and run a conservatory for dancers and students.”
The University of Missouri-Kansas City issued a statement Thursday night saying it would continue pursuing the project, regardless of its location, to assure the continued quality of the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance.
“We are forging ahead with our effort to build a new Conservatory and will be announcing next steps soon,” according to the statement.
“Julia Irene Kauffman has been and continues to be a great champion and benefactor of the UMKC Conservatory. We greatly appreciate her support for our Conservatory, and for the arts in Kansas City.
“She has continued to express her support as we have worked to find new solutions to build an appropriate space for the Conservatory, since we learned this summer that we would need an alternative to our plan for a state match to our donor funding.
“We are continuing to work through options that bring together the needs of key stakeholders – campus, donors, civic and state leaders — with our practical needs for program space, related facilities requirements, location parameters and financial support for the project.”
The $20 million Kauffman Foundation pledge for the Downtown Conservatory plan was announced by Julia Irene Kauffman in 2013. It was the key to raising $48 million in local funds to match what had been promised to be a match from the state.
One of the city’s most influential civic leaders, Warren Erdman of Kansas City Southern, led the lobbying charge is Jefferson City.
Last spring, the legislature fulfilled its funding promise with veto-proof majorities in both houses only to have governor quash it in June.
After Greitens vetoed state funding, backers had been struggling to salvage the downtown conservatory project the past half year.
In deciding not to challenge the governor’s veto, the University of Missouri Board of Curators had promised to seek alternative funding for the project. But a self-proclaimed September deadline came and went without the board presenting an alternative.
That left local civic leaders, city officials and the Downtown Council of Kansas City seeking an alternative financing plan. As recently as two weeks ago, City Manager Troy Schulte said he was hopeful an alternative plan would be forthcoming.
Supporters believed the planned Downtown Conservatory would create a synergy similar to the renowned Juilliard School of Music in New York City, which is located near Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, home of the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera.
The project was proposed for the city block between Broadway and Central Street, from 17th to 18th Streets. Downtown advocates savored the prospect of hundreds of students and faculty living and energizing the adjoining Crossroads Arts District.
But for the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation, time had run out.
After extending the deadline for utilizing its $20 million pledge to wait for the state legislative process to play out, it had become apparent the ambitious original vision for the Downtown Conservatory was not going to happen.
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