It's run by a private board of directors whose members answer only to themselves. And over the last couple of weeks, their hired gun, Union Station CEO Turner White, had the cojones to suggest that Kansas City taxpayers pony up more cash to pay for the monolith's continued operations, this time without the help of our generous suburban neighbors. Though The Kansas City Star treated this as big news, Pitch readers will recall that writer David Martin first reported that a request for more money was looming three months ago ("Loco Motive," February 19).
The Star's cautious approach is understandable, considering that Publisher Art Brisbane sits on the station's current board -- an oligarchy of "civic leaders" who have, in their stewardship of the great civic asset, earned a new distinction to put on their résumés.
Not only have they lost serious money by continuing to operate a science museum so lame that its only repeat visitors appear to be busloads of school kids forced to go there on field trips, but also they've lost something much more important: the good faith of citizens who want desperately for Union Station to be something cool.
Last week, White tried to grub up support for a new property tax at two public hearings. For two nights, City Councilman Jim Glover sat in a chair looking troubled as folks griped to White about how the station had floundered in the few short years since its celebratory reopening in November 1999. Glover must have reported back to the mayor, and Her Honor, apparently flush with a sense of power after making her big arena announcement, sent the Union Station board to timeout. Its members would have to sit on a committee with a few of the mayor's own henchmen (as of press time, she had yet to name them) to study the Union Station situation and report back to the public by October 1. Conveniently, that ensured there will be no competition on the August ballot for her new downtown arena.
But we have another idea. Union Station's board of directors should step the hell aside. And there's no need to worry about chaos in the ensuing leadership vacuum -- we've already located several estimable Kansas Citians who would do a much better job.
And deserve to. At last week's hearings, for example, White argued that he'd trimmed costs and was running a lean, efficient operation. But he admitted that the station needed a couple of additional major attractions, and at one point he tossed out this tantalizing bit: "The Steamboat Arabia would like to relocate to somewhere in this area."
That gets a humble little laugh out of Bob Hawley, patriarch of the family that dug the Arabia steamboat out of a farmer's field, cleaned up its perfectly preserved cargo and now runs a popular museum in the River Market.
"Really? How about that?" Hawley says when I tell him White's news that the Arabia Steamboat Museum wanted to move. "Maybe he's going from that time when he took us out to dinner a couple of years ago. We spoke about a relationship a couple of years ago, but nothing came of that."
Improperly invoking the Arabia's name for the purpose of getting people excited about Union Station is an offense that clearly calls for White's resignation. After all, the Hawleys and their boatload of treasures were among the early possible attractions for the rehabbed station, but even then, members of its brain trust couldn't hold onto the gold they held in their hands.
"They thought that perhaps we would occupy the basement area," Hawley recalls. "We just didn't want to be in the basement, and it never got past just casual conversation. Probably they didn't see that our presence there was going to be a great benefit."
Now, Hawley says, he doubts that they'd fit in at Union Station. "My feeling is that the entrepreneurial spirit is completely void in that environment." But that's all the more reason to sign him up fast.
Board replacement for Turner White: Bob Hawley.
Then there's the chairwoman of the board, Mary Bloch. A fine lady, we're sure, who's put in a lot of time on other civic boards and founded important area organizations. At last week's hearings, I asked her how the board members got their jobs. "We're self-selecting," she said. When it's time for new members, the current members put forth the names of other civic leaders, replacing bankers with bankers, marketing pros with marketing pros. "You look for people with experience in certain areas, and their civic connections, and what makes a good board," she said.
In other words, the same clique of monotonous potentates gets recycled in and out of decision-making roles all over town. When it comes to Union Station, though, people like Brisbane, Kansas City Southern Chairman Michael Haverty, retired Kansas City Power & Light chief Dru Jennings and Federal Reserve Bank President Tom Hoenig are clearly best left to running their stodgy newspapers, railroads and banks.
Regime change begins at the top, so we nominate Anita Dixon to replace Mary Bloch. Last time we saw Dixon, she was presiding over 700 rowdy but extremely well-dressed African-American baby boomers at the $10,000 two-step competition at the Park Place Hotel last December ("Strictly Basement," December 18). She's had experience with Union Station, too.
"Almost ten years ago, when they were going through all that hoopla, I went to one of them open-forum things," she recalls. "I said, 'OK, since you've insisted on being the stupidest thing in the world -- a science museum -- why don't you incorporate a little more, like what George Washington Carver did for the state of Missouri? He was born and died in Missouri, and all the modern inventions from peanut butter to linoleum he donated to the United States in the name of his people. It was a jewel of scientific wonder, and y'all don't want to hear anything about it.' I got shot out of the water."
Instead, Dixon observes astutely, "they started doing stupider and stupider things. Now we're here again."
It's damned depressing. But that's why we need some true entertainers on the new board, too. So to replace former KCPL head Jennings and Olathe Mayor Michael Copeland, I nominate Gary Huggins of the Chucky Lou AV Club and Rita Brinkerhoff of the Burly-Q Girly Crew. Brinkerhoff has been integral to reviving Kansas City's burlesque scene, while Huggins' AV Club was a raucous midnight movie series. When he's not working his day job at the Kansas City Public Library, Huggins also occasionally performs as the Amazing Dr. Incredible, doing feats of wonder and magic.
"In a way, one almost wants to keep it the way it is," Huggins says gloomily. "It's a perfect monument to Kansas City's ineptitude and corruption and failure." It is an intriguing idea, but he has other ideas, ones more consistent with Union Station's past.
"The train used to be a good way to get out of town fast, and now there really isn't a way to get out of town fast. One idea was a get-out-of-town ride. You could go to Union Station and get on a mock train. Local artists could create passing scenery, and you could have a conductor get on the intercom and say all the really great places you wish you were going to: Next stop Austin, Madison, Portland, with stops in Paris and Tokyo. Of course we realized later that would be really depressing because then you'd have to make a ride back to Kansas City."
Huggins' and Brinkerhoff's other ideas were admittedly silly, and some tended toward desperation. "Like a Ripley's Believe It or Not museum because those are pretty cool -- they have things like a guy with a horn coming out of his head. Maybe if you combined that and Dogpatch USA and Bagnell Dam kind of ballyhoo with bumper cars and ski ball," Huggins says after a brainstorming session with Brinkerhoff. Hey, if it works at the Lake of the Ozarks, it's worth thinking about here.
And another thing, Huggins says, "There's that Extreme Screen in there -- is that part making any money? I could think of cooler things to put in there that wouldn't make money, either, but they'd be a lot more interesting than movies about frogs narrated by Glenn Close. It would be a backhand tribute to the dirty movie theater that used to be in Union Station. There was a little raincoat-crowd theater in there called the Astro. I say put that stuff on the Extreme Screen."
The station's prospects are sounding livelier all the time. To encourage more brainstorming efforts, we demand that Star Publisher Brisbane be replaced by another media figure, the Pitch's Night Ranger, Jen Chen.
"Sure," she says when I stop her in the hallway and ask if she'd be willing to serve. "I think there should be more bars there. More 3 a.m. bars because there's nothing to draw people to it."
She'd be a great replacement for Brisbane, Chen says, "Because I think I can drink him under the table. A threat to Art Brisbane: You're going down."
OK, Jen's digressing a bit. But I'm her boss, and I'm confident of her ability to stay on task when it's necessary.
We also know that every powerful organization in town needs a real-estate developer, so we nominate artist David Ford, who owns hot properties at 18th Street and Wyandotte. Ford says he prefers to be called a "microdeveloper," but whatever. He's a landlord now, having created the hippest block in the Crossroads District: Local Harvest grocery store, Blooming Lotus Soap Manufacturing Company, the Lovely Skateshop, the Spool boutique clothing store, Second Honeymoon Vintage Clothing, Y.J.'s Snack Bar and arty underwear store Birdies. "We have 9 businesses and 17 employees," Ford boasts.
"I am so willing to serve," he says of his nomination. "You could move a different monumental sculpture into that atrium every month."
When you talk to people outside of the current reality, you actually start to feel hopeful about the possibilities of saving the restored station. But it'll be a long, hard slog to restore good faith.
That becomes obvious when we call John McDonald, the founder of Boulevard Brewing Company. A lot of current Union Station board members still need to be replaced, and we'll consider nominations from readers all summer, but we thought McDonald would be a good candidate just because of the nature of his product. What he tells us, though, stops us in our tracks.
"We tried to put a brewery in the old power plant building," he says of a structure on the west end of the property. "But at the end of the day, that wasn't going to happen." McDonald says he talked with White and White's predecessor, Andy Scott. "We worked it and worked it and worked it, and it was just a lack of anybody making a decision. It was sort of a dream of mine, but I had to give it up."
The conversation pauses here for a painful sigh -- actually, it's an expletive on my part.
"I know," McDonald says. "It was a cool building."
But now, he says, Boulevard is getting ready to build a new building on what has become its signature corner at 25th Street and Southwest Boulevard, home of the second-largest brewery in Missouri -- second only to Anheuser-Busch.
"I don't know what the right thing is for Union Station," he says. "Kansas City needs to ask what works here and ask the people here who have ideas to try to do something of our own instead of hiring these consulting companies who did something in Texas or California or New York or whatever. Those guys come, and you spend a bunch of money and then they're gone."
McDonald declines to serve on my dream board of directors for Union Station, but maybe if the mayor asked him, he would.
We'll eagerly await word that she's named him to her new Union Station review committee.
In the meantime, I ask McDonald what's in the old power plant now.
"Nothing," he says. "Bird shit."