Old rail depot makes switch to new track
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
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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.”
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, email@example.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 firstname.lastname@example.org. To reach Matt Campbell, call 816-234-4905 or send e-mail to email@example.com.
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.