Booster Stage

Her peeps are playing it cool, but Julia Irene Kauffman needs help.

Kauffman, the daughter of Ewing and Muriel Kauffman, wants to build a breathtaking performing arts center for the symphony, ballet and opera. Foundations under her control have pledged $105 million toward the $304 million project. Her significant other, Ken Dworak, is the project manager.

The dream has not been easy to realize. Land for the performing arts center was purchased five years ago, but no earth has turned. At one point, groundbreaking was scheduled for April 2003. Then it was April 2004. Now it’s slated for August 2005.

In addition to encountering delays, the performing arts center’s supporters have not yet secured all the money they need. Of the $200 million committed to the project, less than $10 million was raised in the past 16 months.

Has giving hit a wall? A consultant to the performing arts center says no. With attitude.

“You don’t know what I know,” says professional fund-raiser Jeffrey Byrne. “You don’t know what Julia and Ken know. We’re not stalled at all. That is a misconception that you have, if that’s what you think. But I’m not here publicly today to announce whatever it is that we’ve raised. You can take that for what it’s worth, but that is not true: We are not stalled in our fund-raising.”

Just the same, voters can make Byrne’s job a lot easier on November 2 by passing the Bistate II tax increase. If County Question 1 passes in Jackson, Johnson and Clay counties, the sales tax increase for sports and arts will provide $50 million for the performing arts center, which will occupy a hillside east of Broadway between 16th and 17th streets.

The project excites many people. Real estate lawyer Whitney Kerr Sr. says the performing arts center is the “missing ingredient” for a resurgent downtown. The project also has the public support of existing theaters, such as the Folly, and more humble arts organizations. “I think it will be a marvelous asset for this community,” says David Barker, the Civic Opera’s development director.

Barker says Kansas City’s fine arts groups need new homes. Last month, he caught the Lyric Opera’s Cinderella at the Lyric Theatre. He felt brutalized after sitting in a cramped seat for the first act, which lasted two hours. “You get up, you feel like you can’t walk,” he says.

The Metropolitan Kansas City Performing Arts Center will feature two main halls, one for the symphony and another for the ballet and the opera. The architect is Israeli-born Moshe Safdie, who made his name in 1967 with an innovative, pueblo-style residential development in Montreal. Safdie’s more recent credits include a public library in Salt Lake City and a new wing at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

Dramatic architecture, comfortable chairs and crisp acoustics come at a price. To make the tax palatable, the Bistate II campaign is emphasizing the notion that $50 million represents only 16 percent of the project’s costs, and that the majority of funding will come from private sources. But Bistate II is only one component of the public’s assistance. The project is counting on $25 million in tax credits from the state of Missouri and $49 million in parking-garage construction from the city of Kansas City, Missouri.

The center was not supposed to rely so heavily on the public. Kauffman said in early 2003 that she hoped the project could get along without a bistate tax. Today, the cause is feeling needier. “Bistate’s very important to the project,” Dworak says. “There are no ifs, ands or buts about that.”

How did the performing arts center get to this point, with the delays and the $105 million funding gap? Opinions vary. Dworak blames the uncertainty of the tax credits. The Missouri Development Finance Board reviewed the center’s proposal three times before finally approving the credits in mid-2003.

The center has also had to contend with a recession. Terri Harmon, chief operating officer of the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City, says the downturn in the stock market caused donors to be more “reflective.”

The performing arts center has also had to vie for donors’ attention at the same time the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is undergoing a major renovation and expansion. Work at the Nelson will cost $200 million. (The original estimate was $80 million.)

Still, the performing arts center has not rallied the community in the way that, say, Union Station did a decade ago. The Sprint Corporation and the Hall family, two big Union Station boosters, have yet to make substantial commitments to the performing arts center.

It could be that donors are merely waiting to see what happens with the Bistate II vote. Bill Hall, the president of the Hall Family Foundation, told The Kansas City Business Journal last month that Bistate II was “an important aspect” of the performing arts center.

It could also be that Julia Kauffman has not inspired complete confidence. There are grumblings among movers and shakers that the project needs to be scaled back, that its planned $30 million endowment is insufficient and that Dworak, the project manager, is in over his head.

Worries about the project were somewhat evident in a $26 million pledge that the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, over which Julia Kauffman has no formal authority, made to the performing arts center last year. The contribution, though generous, stipulated that $1 million was to be spent to “support further research and study to ensure the economic success of the Performing Arts Center.” Citing Union Station’s financial problems as an example, the Kauffman Foundation’s board recognized that an “analysis of the economic viability of civic projects must never be neglected in the enthusiasm for the exciting experiences that such projects can provide to our community,” according to a letter the foundation’s president and CEO, Carl Schramm, sent to Julia Kauffman.

Schramm wrote that “no criticism or second-guessing” was implied, but a directive to perform a viability analysis is hard to interpret otherwise

Sixteen months later, the $1 million grant remains unspent. Dworak is in no hurry. He says the grant was made for “operational studies.” The center, he adds, won’t open for another four years. “We have not started on any studies at this point, but we will probably by some time at the first of the next year,” he says.

Dworak’s qualifications are a touchier subject. A real estate developer by trade, Dworak says it is “ridiculous” for anyone to focus on his personal relationship with Julia Kauffman. “I don’t even know why it’s brought up,” he says. “For the nine years [that he’s worked on the project], nobody’s brought it up. Nobody cares. They know I’m qualified, so it’s a moot issue.”

Dworak notes that it was Muriel Kauffman — not Julia — who initially asked him to work on the project. (Muriel Kauffman died in 1995.) Dworak also notes that he is endorsed by the performing arts center’s board of directors. (Dworak is a member of the board; Julia Kauffman is its president and chairman.) “Everybody’s in complete agreement that I’m very well-qualified … I don’t even want to comment on the relationship issue,” Dworak says.

Dworak may believe he’s well-qualified, but one arts official chooses to “reframe the question” when the Pitch asks about his skills. “While he may be doing a lot of the management and coordinating work, you need to look beyond who’s local and look at who they’ve engaged,” Terri Harmon says, mentioning Safdie and the acousticians, who worked on the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

“If you look at any one individual,” Harmon continues, “they don’t necessarily possess all the qualities that are needed to manage the construction of this facility, but if you look at the foresight of the board of the performing arts center and the impressive panel of people that they have put together, we don’t need to be concerned about this plan at all.”

The performing arts center is not the only Kauffman-Dworak collaboration that has taken its time. Dworak is the contractor of record on renovations of the Kauffman family mansion in Mission Hills. The work has been substantial: remodeling three floors, a second-floor addition, a new pool house, a stone retaining wall. Pickup trucks line the driveway of the estate during the day. Neighbors have gotten used to the sight. Building permits issued last year refer to permits issued in 1998.

“I’m not doing anything unusual,” Julia Kauffman told The Kansas City Star in 1997 when a writer asked about the remodeling. “Actually, the house is in mint condition. It just needs modernizing.”

But like the performing arts center, the job has turned out to be tougher than it looked.

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