Coats and ties on the line

The other day my fourth-grade son said he wanted to go to Science City at Union Station. His request caught me off guard. I had read the news articles and letters to the editor — in PitchWeekly and in The Star — seen the TV spots, and overheard conversations. Everybody had an opinion. Science City either wasn’t worth the admission price or it was “kinda neat” — and every assessment in between.

Sifting through such comments brought me to a “glass is half-empty” evaluation. When museum officials publicly admitted that they might have to tap a museum donor for cash “just in case” attendance didn’t pick up quickly, I felt smug. Plus, there was a kind of “We told you so” element at work.

PitchWeekly, in reporting on the bistate tax campaign to renovate Union Station and construct Science City, had raised questions in a number of articles and editorials about the project’s ability to attract the kind of numbers needed to cover operating expenses. Other media outlets also reported on the attendance issue but maybe not quite as diligently as they should have. Clay Chastain repeatedly raised the point while trying to convince voters he had a better plan to restore the station. We all know the outcome: The voters went with what they saw as the safe bet.

Up to a point, it’s still a pretty safe bet for one big reason: There are too many tuxedos on the line; too many civic-minded folk have committed a lot of money to underwrite their conviction that their idea to save Union Station was the one and only right idea.

(Sorta reminds ya of the Kansas City Missouri School District and the deseg money, doesn’t it?)

Although it may be too early to say that a shuffling of leadership chairs is being planned, Kansas City Museum President David Ucko has heard the bell. The question is whether he’ll get creative and decisive in solving attendance problems or become overly adept at delivering spin. To his credit, he seems to have experienced the reality check needed to start figuring out the solution.

What Science City doesn’t need is for any of the established businesses in Union Station to bolt, particularly the eateries. If Union Station becomes known in the restaurant trade as a “tomb” when it comes to customer traffic, things will get troublesome. Remember that business adage? Location, location, location.

Establishment folk also need to stop this ridiculous talk about, after it expires in 2002, renewing the bistate tax to help maintain the sports stadiums and give Johnson County just what it needs: a soccer arena. As I said on this page a month or so ago when the bistate tax renewal was first floated publicly, it’s a plan conjured up by “simpletons” who fail to recognize that the tax may have to be renewed — but only to keep Science City solvent. Puh-leeze, the politicians in Jefferson City and Topeka who are pushing this corporate welfare scheme need a brain-stem replacement.

(Dear Sen. Wiggins: Was there any quid pro quo in your receiving the Mr. Baseball award from the Royals and pushing the bistate tax renewal legislation in the Missouri Senate, or was it simply urging the public to lay down a sacrifice bunt for your childhood dream to come true?)

Voters may be lazy, but they generally aren’t stupid when it comes to their own self-interest. Even the most dense politician would find it hard to believe that a bistate tax renewal to benefit sports franchises and assorted other special interests — depending upon who’s got the clout — would pass when Science City is bleeding tax dollars already spent. But then again, look at whom we elect.

Then there’s Crown Center. Having a company that’s spent a number of years in the shadow of a crumbling building no one wanted, the Hallmark leadership shouldn’t for a minute want to go back to explaining what happened to that wonderful train station catty-corner from the hotel. Also, to keep them interested, the Hallmark guys are getting a new taxpayer-subsidized, over-the-street, enclosed crosswalk going from the Crown Center complex to the station. Granted, it’s a pretty long walk, especially for little kids who want to visit Science City, but God forbid that someone be required to actually use Kansas City’s street-level public sidewalks.

If finances get stickier at Science City and Union Station, maybe Crown Center should be encouraged to take over the property. Management at the shopping center has been creative through the years in making a go of that enterprise. What’s to say they couldn’t do a better job at managing Union Station and partnering with the museum staff to get attendance figures rolling upward? The museum board and Union Station Acceptance Corp., which owns the station, don’t seem to have the hands-on retail savvy needed to bring the crowds. At the very least, they didn’t hire the right consultants.

A couple of other things would help. Johnson County continues to study the commuter rail route down I-35 that would link up with Union Station. The foot-dragging has all the earmarks of spending money for the sake of spending money: failing to arrive at a study conclusion or to set a beginning operating date. Although the words “public transportation system” cause many Johnson County officials to gag, these people should consider the commuter rail route as a possible booster for getting people familiar with Union Station’s offerings.

If Union Station officials want the public to come to the station, then they should give people plenty of public space. They should open up the north waiting room to people who don’t hold Science City tickets. Even though members of the public don’t own the building, they feel that they do — and maybe they should, their money’s there too. Also, there’s been talk about bringing the Amtrak ticket office back into the station. Gee, that makes sense — travelers will tell other travelers about Union Station and Science City. Call it word-of-mouth marketing, something that doesn’t cost a dime — anything to help whatever marketing is happening now.

But maybe my son got the notion to go to Science City because of word of mouth on the playground, or maybe he got the idea from watching the local news. I don’t know, but I’m taking him to Science City. He wants to ride that bike on the highwire. Besides, the coat-and-tie guys need our help.

Contact Bruce Rodgers at 816-218-6776 or

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