Old rail de­pot makes switch to new track

The Kansas City Star (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By ERIC ADLER and MATT CAMP­BELL The Kansas City Star

It may not be as much fun. It’s not what was promised. But it will be open, and that’s un­doubt­edly a suc­cess. A decade af­ter vot­ers re­ju­ve­nated the ar­chi­tec­tural corpse of Union Sta­tion — help­ing to in­fuse $263 mil­lion into its blood­stream — leaders of the for­mer train de­pot are mov­ing for­ward with a new busi­ness plan to save the life of the grand build­ing that has been hem­or­rhag­ing mil­lions of dol­lars since the day of its re­birth.

Un­der the new plan, the 96-year-old sta­tion

★may look more like an of­fice park than a cul­tural at­trac­tion.

It is a ma­jor shift in em­pha­sis that was un­der­scored last week with Union Sta­tion’s de­sire to woo the Greater Kansas City Cham­ber of Com­merce and the Kansas City Area De­vel­op­ment Coun­cil to 35,000 square feet of empty of­fice space there.

In essence, the shift also calls on Kansas Ci­tians to pare back — for at least the next two to five years — some of the ro­man­tic

@Go to KansasCity.com for a photo gallery.

no­tions they may still hold of Union Sta­tion as a cen­ter promis­ing fun-filled en­ter­tain­ment. Two pieces of good news: First, the sta­tion is no longer on the brink of be­ing boarded up. Of­fi­cials last week said that 2009 ended with a much smaller deficit than pro­jected and that they ex­pect ex­penses to at least break even in the fu­ture.

“I have a pas­sion for the place,” said Mike Haverty, who, as Union Sta­tion’s board chair­man and the chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Kansas City South­ern Rail­way, re­tains wist­ful boy­hood mem­o­ries of the place.

“It’s not go­ing down on my watch. It’s not,” he said.

Sec­ond, Union Sta­tion’s leaders are back­ing off on their call for a tax in­crease — for now.

Mean­while, the prime fo­cus at the sta­tion won’t be as much mak­ing the place lively as it will be keep­ing it alive.

“The first thing is to sur­vive,” said Haverty, a sen­ti­ment re­in­forced by Union Sta­tion CEO Ge­orge Guastello.

“We have to sta­bi­lize the pa­tient,” Guastello said. “Stop the bleed­ing.”

To that end, the new plan calls for cut­ting out or cut­ting back on what­ever loses money and go­ing af­ter what makes money — pri­mar­ily by pulling in rent-pay­ing ten­ants.

“You mean run the place like a busi­ness? Imag­ine that!” said Mayor Mark Funkhouser of Kansas City, who sup­ports the new di­rec­tion. “We have to keep the doors open — then we can talk about how ex­cit­ing we want to make it.”

Ex­actly how ex­cit­ing it will be now is hard to say.

As part of their plan, Union Sta­tion of­fi­cials in­tend to:

Con­sider clos­ing or leas­ing the Har­vey House Diner.

“We (Union Sta­tion) should not be in the restau­rant busi­ness,” Guastello said.

The sta­tion’s restau­rant op­er­a­tions — which do not in­clude the pri­vately run Pier­pont’s — have op­er­ated in the red for years, los­ing more than $169,000 in 2009. If a pri­vate ven­dor would like to take over the Har­vey House Diner, or would pre­fer to use the space for a dif­fer­ent restau­rant, that would be great, of­fi­cials said.

The sta­tion’s Union Cafe, later called the Bistro, closed in 2008 as a money loser. It stands empty, a ghostly plat­form at the cen­ter of the sta­tion’s Grand Hall.

Pos­si­bly cease run­ning the Ex­treme Screen movie the­ater for the same rea­sons. Of­fi­cials may seek an out­side ven­dor or shut it down.

Wait to up­grade Sci­ence City. The in­ter­ac­tive mu­seum is in des­per­ate need of mod­ern­iza­tion. But that will have to wait un­til the bud­get al­lows, or un­til of­fi­cials find out­side part­ners to help.

Make cuts. The staff at Union Sta­tion has al­ready been slashed from about 300 a decade ago to 85 em­ploy­ees to­day. This month, the sta­tion’s long­time mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor was laid off.

Jan­i­to­rial ser­vices and park­ing ser­vices have al­ready been out­sourced. Of­fi­cials are also pre­pared to out­source ad­ver­tis­ing and pro­mo­tions of the sta­tion and hire out­side pub­lic re­la­tions peo­ple event by event.

The sta­tion’s at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing Sci­ence City, also have been closed a cou­ple of days each week this win­ter, un­til spring break, to save money.

Book only sure­fire, mon­ey­mak­ing trav­el­ing ex­hibits. The sta­tion usu­ally has a lineup of fu­ture ex­hibits booked in ad­vance. Some, such as the 2007 Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, made money. Other sapped money, like an exhibit on chocolate. No more.

“What doesn’t work has to stop,” Guastello said.

Noth­ing is sched­uled for this sum­mer, al­though Guastello said he was in ne­go­ti­a­tions to bring in a show that would prob­a­bly be pop­u­lar with chil­dren.

In the past, the sta­tion made or lost money by agree­ing to share ticket rev­enue with a show’s pro­ducer. It may now opt to avoid any fi­nan­cial risk and sim­ply rent out the 15,000-square-foot Bank of Amer­ica exhibit gallery in the lower level for a fixed price. Old ag­o­nies

Union Sta­tion lan­guished for decades be­fore it re­opened in 1999.

First and fore­most, the goal was to re­ju­ve­nate a his­toric 1914 Kansas City land­mark that had been aban­doned, shut­tered and was lit­er­ally fall­ing down. Plas­ter crum­bled from the ceil­ing in chunks. Birds nested along the win­dows. In win­ter, pools of wa­ter on the cracked floor turned to ice.

In 1996, vot­ers in John­son, Jack­son, Platte and Clay coun­ties ap-

proved a one-eighth-cent sales tax to raise $118 mil­lion to re­store the sta­tion. Pri­vate do­na­tions made up the rest of the $263 mil­lion.

By many mea­sures, sup­port­ers say, the ren­o­va­tion has been a rag­ing suc­cess.

“Com­pared to what Union Sta­tion was in the mid-1990s, com­pared to how I re­mem­ber it, the de­crepit con­di­tion it was in, the trans­for­ma­tion is re­mark­able,” said Kristi Smith Wy­att, the Cham­ber of Com­merce’s in­terim pres­i­dent. “Not only is it bet­ter, but look at what the re­vi­tal­iza­tion of Union Sta­tion has meant to the re­vi­tal­iza­tion of the area around it.”

Wy­att and oth­ers main­tain that, with Union Sta­tion a cat­a­lyst, more than $1 bil­lion of in­vest­ment has since poured into the sur­round­ing area — in­clud­ing the re­de­vel­op­ment of Lib­erty Memo­rial and the Na­tional World War I Mu­seum.

The In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice con­sol­i­dated thou­sands of work­ers on Per­sh­ing Road. The U.S. Postal Ser­vice now leases space at Union Sta­tion. The deal in­cluded a 1,500space park­ing lot there. The Na­tional Archives and the Kansas City Bal­let also lease space from the sta­tion.

The re­vived Cross­roads Arts District is now linked to the sta­tion by way of a pedes­trian bridge built in 2006.

Yet as an en­ter­tain­ment venue, Union Sta­tion’s life has been dis­ap­point­ing from the start. It was sup- posed to be lively. It was sup­posed to teem with 1 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year.

Vot­ers were told that peo­ple would flock to the sta­tion’s sto­ried Grand Hall, to Sci­ence City, and to the­aters, movies and a bevy of restau­rants. That never hap­pened. Un­der a bis­tate agree­ment that re­newed the sta­tion, the Grand Hall was re­quired to be free dur­ing busi­ness hours. So fi­nan­cially, rev­enue from Sci­ence City and other events were ex­pected to pay for the heat­ing, cool­ing and up­keep of the vast and open pub­lic space.

“It was stupid,” re­called Funkhouser, who was Kansas City au­di­tor when the sta­tion was be­ing ren­o­vated.

He re­mem­bered sit­ting in a meet­ing and hear­ing the pitch for Union Sta­tion and its re­liance on Sci­ence City.

“I was sit­ting there lis­ten­ing to this guy talk about how it was go­ing to work,” he said. “It couldn’t pos­si­bly work.”

Over the last decade, rev­enues and at­ten­dance from Sci­ence City and the Arvin Gottlieb Plan­e­tar­ium have steadily plum­meted, down 62 per­cent, from 558,000 peo­ple in 2000 to 210,000 in 2009.

The sta­tion be­gan with a fat $40 mil­lion en­dow­ment and even­tu­ally ate through it to pay bills.

In its first year, the sta­tion op­er­ated at a $13 mil­lion deficit, with sub­se­quent deficits also run­ning in the mil­lions. The sta­tion has never made money and only broke even once, in 2007, when peo­ple flocked to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. The 2009 deficit is es­ti­mated at $279,000.

On any given day and dur­ing most hours, the sta­tion sits all but hol­low, with a few peo­ple wan­der­ing the cav­ernous space. The ghostly feel is only re­in­forced by mu­sic that rises from a player pi­ano at the cen­ter of the hall, with no one at the key­board.

Life and laugh­ter pe­ri­od­i­cally re­turn to the sta­tion, es­pe­cially on days when school groups come to Sci­ence City or dur­ing spe­cial events.

The H&R Block City Stage re­mains, as does the plan­e­tar­ium and the KC Rail Ex­pe­ri­ence, as well as a few other ven­dors.

Ten­ants talk of how great the sta­tion felt at Christ­mas­time when model trains filled the east end of the Grand Hall and chil­dren packed the de­pot.

“When there are events here, when the com­mu­nity sup­ports the sta­tion, it feels won­der­ful,” said Pier­pont’s co-owner Rod An­der­son, whose restau­rant has been at the sta­tion since its re­open­ing.

De­spite the lack of foot traf­fic, Pier­pont’s does ex­tremely well, An­der­son said.

“We find that we are kind of our own draw,” he said.

“The big­gest is­sue for us is, with all the var­i­ous press re­leases about the sta­tion com­ing out, is we get calls say­ing, ‘Are you clos­ing?’ … But if peo­ple think you’re not go­ing to be here, they are re­luc­tant to come. The nice part would be to lay to rest that they are clos­ing the fa­cil­ity.”

Frankly, he said, any plan that brings in more peo­ple — busi­ness ten­ants or oth­er­wise — would be wel­come.

Haverty, the Union Sta­tion board chair­man, said he feels bet­ter about the sta­tion’s fu­ture than he ever has.

The strict busi­ness plan, he said, is al­ready pay­ing off. For the first time, the sta­tion’s lease rev­enue is just about enough to cover the cost of also heat­ing, cool­ing and main­tain­ing the huge build­ing.

What it doesn’t cover, how­ever, is de­ferred main­te­nance — stuff that SOME OLD STA­TIONS HAD SAD FATES; OTH­ERS HAD FU­TURES

Some120 Union Sta­tions, named be­cause they are where rail lines united, once dot­ted the United States. More than 100 still do.

They rose be­tween the1840s and early 1900s. Many, like Kansas City’s, were erected as mus­cu­lar neo­clas­si­cal build­ings. Some, such as the Milwaukee Union Sta­tion — a mas­sive church-like struc­ture also called the Everett Street De­pot — boasted spires and a 140-foot-high clock tower.

Still oth­ers stood as tiny de­pots or spread out long and el­e­gant, such as the Union Sta­tion in Spring­field, Ill., now serv­ing as the Lin­coln Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary Vis­i­tor Cen­ter. Of the 120, about:

40 still work pri­mar­ily as train sta­tions, such as Bos­ton’s South Sta­tion and Union Sta­tion in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

15 have been re­born as mu­se­ums. The Du­luth Union De­pot in Min­nesota con­tains five.

10 have been de­mol­ished, some be­cause of fires, but mostly from dis­use and de­crepi­tude.

Other Union Sta­tions have found new lives through new uses:

The one in Al­bany, N.Y is a bank; Union Sta­tion in Fort Worth, Texas, known as the Santa Fe De­pot, is a ca­ter­ing hall; Union Sta­tion in Prov­i­dence, R.I., houses a mi­cro­brew­ery; Union Sta­tion in Ta­coma, Wash., is a fed­eral court­house.

Con­sider the fates of a few oth­ers: Lost to his­tory

Union Sta­tion in Port­land, Maine: As rail traf­fic waned, it was de­mol­ished and turned into a strip mall in the 1960s. The de­struc­tion out­raged res­i­dents and spurred a his­toric ar­chi­tec­tural preser­va­tion move­ment in Port­land. Pre­serv­ing his­tory

Union Ter­mi­nal in Cincin­nati: The rot­ting sta­tion was ac­quired and turned into the Cincin­nati Mu­seum Cen­ter at Union Ter­mi­nal. Four mu­se­ums are now joined un­der one roof as a sin­gle non­profit. The cen­ter, which at­tracts more than 1 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year, is sup­ported by a lo­cal tax. His­tory and her story

Penn Sta­tion in Bal­ti­more: Orig­i­nally known as Union Sta­tion, the mas­sive de­pot is like many in the U.S. still work­ing as a ma­jor rail hub. It raises eye­brows and ques­tions with its $750,000 pub­lic art in­stal­la­tion: a 51-foot­tall statue called “Male/Fe­male.” A news­pa­per colum­nist com­pared it to the robot in the movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

❙❙❙Mak­ing his­tory

Union Sta­tion in Den­ver: This year it re­ceived $300 mil­lion in fed­eral loans so it can be turned into a bus and passenger rail hub. Al­most his­tory

Michi­gan Cen­tral Sta­tion in Detroit: It has sat idle for more than 20 years. The in­side de­sign, boast­ing mar­ble with Doric col­umns, was based on a Ro­man bath. Last April, the Detroit City Coun­cil voted to de­mol­ish the build­ing, but a res­i­dent sued to stop the wreck­ing ball, cit­ing the Na­tional His­toric Preser­va­tion Act of 1966. Ideas for fu­ture uses range from a con­ven­tion cen­ter and casino to the head­quar­ters of the Po­lice Depart­ment. A new story

The Milwaukee Road De­pot in Min­neapo­lis: Now in pri­vate hands as The De­pot, it opened as a ho­tel and en­ter­tain­ment com­plex in 2001 with restau­rants, ban­quet halls, an in­door wa­ter park and, in the win­ter, an in­door ice rink. | Eric Adler, eadler@kc­star.com

breaks and needs fix­ing or up­dat­ing.

The sta­tion re­cently cleaned, pol­ished and resur­faced 36 brass doors at the mu­seum’s en­trance. But a patch of plas­ter re­cently blis­tered and fell from the ceil­ing near the east­ern chan­de­lier. Con­crete is crack­ing out­side. Pipes need re­pair.

Sta­tion of­fi­cials say they be­lieve they can save $90,000 a year if they in­vest $20,000 in more en­ergy-ef­fi­cient lights. But there is no money for up­grades or to spruce up Sci­ence City. Tax ques­tion

For years, peo­ple have ar­gued that the sta­tion would do bet­ter if it sim­ply had a bet­ter main at­trac­tion.

City and Union Sta­tion of­fi­cials have heard nu­mer­ous sug­ges­tions: a botan­i­cal gar­den, an aquar­ium, a shop­ping cen­ter as they have in St. Louis, a casino (for­bid­den un­der the bis­tate agree­ment) or a “mu­seum mall” such as they have in Cincin­nati’s old Union Ter­mi­nal, which draws more than 1 mil­lion vis­i­tors each year.

But un­like Kansas City’s Union Sta­tion, the Cincin­nati Mu­seum Cen­ter at Union Ter­mi­nal, with about 350 em­ploy­ees, is specif­i­cally sup­ported by an op­er­at­ing levy that brings in about $17 mil­lion each year.

“Without the levy, this build­ing would suck the life out of us,” said El­iz­a­beth Pierce, the cen­ter’s mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor.

In Kansas City, prop­erty own­ers give 2 cents for ev­ery $100 of as­sessed val­u­a­tion in a mu­seum tax that op­er­ates the Kansas City Mu­seum. In the fu­ture, Union Sta­tion hopes to ask vot­ers to in­crease that city tax to cover main­te­nance and im­prove­ments there.

But Haverty and Guastello agree that now is hardly the time, in the midst of an eco- nomic re­ces­sion, to ask tax­pay­ers for even a small prop­erty tax in­crease. The first job, Haverty said, is to get more pay­ing ten­ants and show the com­mu­nity that sta­tion of­fi­cials can run the build­ing re­spon­si­bly and cost-ef­fec­tively without go­ing to the pub­lic trough.

“It’s up to us to show them what we can do,” Haverty said.

As the build­ing be­comes more fi­nan­cially sta­ble, Haverty said, the sta­tion will have more money to in­vest in im­prov­ing Sci­ence City and at­tract­ing ex­cit­ing ex­hibits. But that will take time.

“I’m a great be­liever in per­sis­tence,” he said.

Mean­while, sta­tion go­ers may have to trade the prospect of fun for the prospect that the sta­tion is func­tion­ing.

“It’s a very, very deep frus­tra­tion that we never got what we ex­pected,” said David Peiron­net, a North­lander who was a vol­un­teer on the 1996 bis­tate ef­fort to save the sta­tion. “There needs to be more ac­tiv­ity, and dif­fer­ent ac­tiv­i­ties.”

But Peiron­net said the top pri­or­ity has al­ways been sav­ing the struc­ture.

“Looking for a new ap­proach to do­ing things, in my opin­ion, is not a bad thing,” he said. “An in­terim pe­riod where they re­ex­am­ine their al­ter­na­tives is prob­a­bly a pos­i­tive di­rec­tion. A bless­ing in dis­guise.” To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431or send e-mail to eadler@kc­star.com. To reach Matt Camp­bell, call 816-234-4905 or send e-mail to mcamp­bell@kc­star.com.

PHO­TOS BY RICH SUGG | THE KANSAS CITY STAR

On any given day and dur­ing most hours, Union Sta­tion has few peo­ple wan­der­ing the cav­ernous space. Life pe­ri­od­i­cally re­turns, es­pe­cially when school groups come or dur­ing spe­cial events.

Some main­tain that Union Sta­tion’s re­vi­tal­iza­tion has been a cat­a­lyst for more than $1 bil­lion of in­vest­ment in the sur­round­ing area. Yet as an en­ter­tain­ment venue, the sta­tion has dis­ap­pointed.

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