On December 21, 2005, the Liberty Memorial Association celebrated an achievement. Members of the nonprofit group held a reception to mark their success in raising $26.5 million for a World War I museum.
Politicians and the public were invited to the event, which was held at the memorial on a day when the sun hid behind the clouds. A Kansas City Star photographer took a picture of former U.S. Rep. Karen McCarthy (who died in 2010), hugging a veteran of the Korean War.
Taxpayers made it possible for the museum's supporters to raise their glasses at the late-morning reception. In 2004, voters approved a $20 million bond issue to pay for most of the construction costs. Congressional earmarks provided an additional $900,000.
A World War I museum opened to acclaim underneath the deck of the monument a year later. But in one respect, the 2005 celebration was a sham.
Voters approved the bond issue on the stipulation that the Liberty Memorial Association would raise the money necessary to complete the museum. The effort fell short. The association had to borrow $3.8 million from the city to hold up its end of the bargain. Only a portion of that debt has been repaid.
The celebration of an unrealized fundraising goal fits a pattern. What is now known as the National World War I Museum was built partly on accounting tricks and broken promises. Parks department officials appeared to misuse public money in order to create the space for the museum, which is not as self-sufficient as its promoters said it would be.
Still, museum officials insist that the investment has been worthwhile. The leadership points to the growing budget, expanded programs and celebrity endorsements (Kevin Costner has recorded radio spots) as evidence of a thriving institution. "It's just been a wild success," says Brian Alexander, who became president and CEO in 2007.
The cost to taxpayers has been astronomical, however. Government sources contributed most of the money to restore the monument and add the museum. The subsidy shopping continued after the project was completed. Several days after the museum opened, on December 6, 2006, it captured $207,000 in city funds that became available when an aquatic center north of the river came in under budget.
Museum officials say they've reduced their reliance on public support. Alexander says aggressive efforts have been made to generate income — an increased admission price has helped — and broaden the donor base. "We're able to largely take care of ourselves," he says.
Alexander likes to describe the museum in terms of a child who has been rushed into adulthood. It's his way of communicating the idea that the museum has become a much more professional operation under his care. Keep in mind, he says, "There has never been a systematic and well-coordinated manner in which we raised funds" — a fairly significant point to address. "Everything changed for us," he says.
One significant change took place earlier this year. In February, the museum announced that Carl DiCapo, the public face of the Liberty Memorial for many years, was stepping down from his role in the organization. At one time, DiCapo was both the chairman of the Liberty Memorial Association and a paid consultant for the museum, a dubious arrangement.
DiCapo's involvement with the Liberty Memorial began in 1986, when he was a member of the parks commission. He rallied support for the renovation of the monument and the construction of the museum. Yet his departure was recognized not with a banquet but with a press release.
DiCapo, it turns out, was accused of sexually harassing a member of the museum staff during his final year on the job. He also argued with Alexander's predecessor, a retired military officer, at a public event at the museum. Disregarding the solemnity of their surroundings, the two men squared off while standing on the glass footbridge that spans a display of 9,000 artificial poppies, each one representing 1,000 of the Great War's combat deaths.
Embedded in bedrock, the Liberty Memorial reaches 217 feet in the air. The flame that appears to burn at the top of the monument is actually illuminated steam.
The shaft is often compared with a phallus, but it may be best to think of the monument as a vacuum hose sucking tax dollars. Officials at the World War I Museum put the cost of the renovation and museum expansion at $102 million. Less than $15 million came from private donors. City, state and federal governments provided the rest, in bundles of various sizes, over the years.
A fit of patriotism provided the initial investment in Liberty Memorial. As the war came to an end in 1918, a newspaper suggested that a monument be built to honor the war dead. R.A. Long, J.C. Nichols, William T. Kemper and other barons of Kansas City formed the original Liberty Memorial Association. A 10-day public fund drive raised $2.5 million. President Calvin Coolidge attended the dedication ceremony on November 11, 1926.
By the 1970s, the grounds became known as a place to have secluded sex, attracting thugs who liked to prey on people engaged in such activity. The frequency of the assaults led police to close off the traffic loop at night.
In the summer of 1994, a 31-year-old man threw himself off the observation deck. A few months later, officials of the parks department, which controlled the monument, decided that the suicidal weren't the only ones at risk. Engineers said water damage had compromised the deck structure. The monument closed on Veterans Day that year.
It was an embarrassment to turn away visitors from such a stately edifice. Former Mayor Emanuel Cleaver appointed a civic group, Citizens to Save Liberty Memorial, to come up with a rescue plan. Parks officials, meanwhile, began to think about ways to incorporate a new museum when renovating the monument's crumbling stonework. But the public was cool to the idea of building a grand stage for the World War I artifacts (a collection that the association said had outgrown Exhibit Hall and Memory Hall, the monument's existing exhibition spaces) that the Liberty Memorial Association had amassed over the years.
In 1998, voters approved a temporary sales tax to restore the monument to its original glory. The tax raised $30 million for repairs and set aside an additional $15 million for an endowment to pay for maintenance.
The proposed museum was expected to cost yet another $30 million. But it was up to its backers to pry money from private donors, and the state and federal government.
As the restoration proceeded, preservationists grumbled that the parks department was using the sales-tax proceeds to create a shell for the new museum. Mark Funkhouser, then the city auditor, investigated the claim. He determined that the parks department's decision to remove and replace the support columns underneath the deck was done primarily to accommodate the museum. But the Liberty Memorial Association defended the parks department's work with a two-page ad in The Kansas City Star.
The monument reopened to the public on Memorial Day in 2001. Later that year, DiCapo, a restaurateur active in charity efforts, became president of the Liberty Memorial Association. He did not lack confidence in his ability to raise funds for the museum. "Believe me, we will get the money," he told a Star reporter then.
The museum's supporters got a boost when Ralph Appelbaum Associates agreed to design the museum. Appelbaum designed the permanant exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Bill Clinton presidential library.
Still, private donors were reluctant to give. DiCapo and the professional fundraisers hired by the Liberty Memorial Association found that the Battle of Verdun was a tougher sell than the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the charities that provide services to the needy. So museum proponents went back to the city in 2004 and asked for a $20 million bond issue to be placed on the ballot.
A few months before the vote, DiCapo appeared before the parks board. He stood at the lectern and pledged that the Liberty Memorial Association would quit being a burden to taxpayers if the bond passed. "We're not going to ask for anymore," he said. "This is it."
Voters held up their end of the bargain. DiCapo and the association did not.
In 2006, with the ribbon-cutting a few weeks away, the Liberty Memorial Association asked the city to nearly double the $625,000 annual operating subsidy, which had been agreed upon two years earlier, when the city transferred the management of the facility to the nonprofit. (The city continues to own the memorial itself.)
Former City Manager Wayne Cauthen agreed to provide an additional $207,000 in 2006. The following year, the city provided $1,245,000, nearly double the annual subsidy.
Meanwhile, questions arose about the museum's governance.
The Pitch reported in 2007 that DiCapo had taken a paid position at the museum at the same time that he chaired the Liberty Memorial Association. The arrangement flouted convention. It's rare in the nonprofit world for trustees to receive compensation.
DiCapo insisted that he was a bargain. He suggested that donors found him irresistible. "No one turns me down because they know I'm not going to lie to them," he told The Pitch at the time.
DiCapo's dual role of board member and paid consultant was not the only questionable arrangement, The Pitch found. The Liberty Memorial Association hired Steve Berkheiser, a Vietnam veteran who retired with the rank of brigadier general, as its executive director in 2002. In 2005, his wife, Margriet, who worked at the museum as a volunteer, became a $20-an-hour employee.
The Pitch story embarrassed some members of the museum's board of trustees, who were surprised to find out that the general's wife was on the payroll. Berkheiser resigned the following month.
DiCapo, meanwhile, held on to his paid position. And the museum continued to turn to the city for help.
In 2008, with Alexander now in the role of chief executive, museum officials asked the City Council to once again nearly double the $625,000 regular operating subsidy. Facing a stark budget year, the council and the new mayor, Mark Funkhouser, denied the request. An hour later, the Liberty Memorial Association announced that the "flame" would be turned off, citing the $45,000 in annual energy costs.
It was easy for residents to imagine the Liberty Memorial Association as a child taking its ball and going home. DiCapo told a Star reporter that the decision to power down the boiler that generated the steam "sends a message." (Later, the museum announced a private "Save the Flame" campaign.)
With their access to the city's general fund restricted, museum officials began to look for new sources of public money. The thinking got creative.
In 1995, a city agency, the Tax-Increment Financing Commission, agreed to help Health Midwest redevelop three of its hospitals, including Trinity Lutheran, the hospital near 31st Street and Main. Later, a for-profit health-care company acquired Health Midwest, and Trinity Lutheran closed.
The tax-increment financing district around Trinity Lutheran did not disappear when the hospital shut down. It became active once the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City built a new headquarters on land between the old hospital and the Liberty Memorial.
The new building generates taxes that the TIF Commission is able to capture. The parks department is receiving $5.6 million from the fund to spend on Penn Valley Park, the Off-Broadway Theater and the Liberty Memorial.
At one point, Liberty Memorial Association board members talked about using their share to encircle the grounds with a fence. Tim Kristl, a former parks commissioner who became a Liberty Memorial trustee in 2007, said the barrier was necessary to thwart terrorists.
Eyes rolled at Kristl's suggestion that jihadists would target a World War I memorial in the middle of the country. Funkhouser's appointments to the parks commission said no to the fence. Instead, the parks department plans this year to spend the Liberty Memorial's $2.2 million share of the TIF money to remove the mischief-obscuring brush on the east and west sides of the grounds and to make other security upgrades.
The Liberty Memorial Association has found other means of tapping into the city's treasury. Since 2006, the association has received $145,531 from a tourism fund that makes small grants to neighborhood and community groups that hold special events. The ghost of Kaiser Wilhelm II has provided formidable competition for the StoneLion Puppet Theatre, the KC Fringe Festival and other groups that apply for the money each year.
Brian Alexander could not be more different from the man he replaced as chief executive at the Liberty Memorial Association. Berkheiser was a decorated combat veteran. Alexander has spent his entire career working in museums, none martial in nature. He keeps a copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I on a bookshelf in his office. As he works, he likes to stream a classical radio station in Portland, Oregon, on his computer. "I find it very relaxing," he says.
Alexander grew up outside Peoria, Illinois. His resume includes leadership positions at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont (it specializes in American folk art) and Historic Annapolis Foundation in Maryland. His career seemed to be facing a downward trajectory when the Liberty Memorial Association asked him to lead the organization. Prior to moving to Kansas City, Alexander was the director of the lightly visited World Figure Skating Museum and Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs.
Alexander arrived at the Liberty Memorial at a critical time. Unable to raise private donations in meaningful amounts, the World War I museum struggled to capitalize on the positive reviews that accompanied the opening of the space and its exhibits. Rather than retrench, Alexander guided the board and the staff through a strategic planning process. "We decided to be aggressive and move forward and enlarge the budget, enlarge our programs, enlarge the staff, to make it possible for us to really put ourselves in the future," he says.
In the past six months, the museum has hired a new development director and a new chief historian. The Regnier Family Foundation has donated $200,000 to start a distance-learning program. Ann Regnier is a Liberty Memorial Association board member. Since Alexander joined the organization, trustees have been expected to step up their giving to the institution — or make way for someone who will.
The museum increased in size and reach without going into debt, posting a loss of only $22,000 in 2010. "That's a pretty good trick," Alexander says, "but we did it."
Still, Alexander is not ready to announce that the museum is in a position to swear off government funding. Prior to his arrival, museum officials talked about being self-sufficient by the time the operating agreement with the city expires in 2014 (the centennial of the war's outbreak). But Alexander suggests that the need for city support will continue. "As it is now, it works for us," he says.
The Liberty Memorial Association has repaid only $800,000 of the $3.8 million it borrowed from the city to come up with its share of the museum's construction costs. The city, in turn, is charging what amounts to interest on the money. In 2009, city budget officers began counting proceeds from the maintenance endowment toward the city's $625,000 annual contribution to the facility. (The city will spend an additional $1.2 million this year to pay the debt on the 2004 museum bond issue.)
The museum, Alexander says, could keep its doors open "if city funding falls off the table." Admissions, rentals and private support make up a larger portion of the budget than they did before he arrived. Alexander says he's not trying to be critical of the way the museum was run in the past. "I don't want to defame anybody from before," he says. But it's apparent from talking with him and other senior staff that the Liberty Memorial Association bumbled along for years without a coherent idea of what it takes to sustain a successful museum.
For instance, very little effort was made to raise money from individuals and foundations outside the metropolitan area, even though the facility was designated by Congress as the National World War I Museum in 2004. "We cannot just raise money in this town, and we know that," says Denise Rendina, the museum's senior vice president of public affairs and marketing.
Giving prominent roles to DiCapo, whose name recognition exceeds his clout, was also a suspect decision.
DiCapo worked at Italian Gardens, his family's restaurant that was located in downtown Kansas City, for 46 years. He greeted the restaurant's guests, developing habits that do not comport with what is considered proper workplace behavior.
One day last spring, in the café at the World War I Museum, DiCapo put his arm around the waist of a museum staff member and kissed her on the cheek. The staff member told DiCapo that his actions were inappropriate and mentioned the incident to management.
A few months later, DiCapo kissed a different woman in the presence of the woman he had offended. Di Capo made a comment to the woman who complained about the earlier incident, noting that his latest grab-and-kiss hadn't elicited an immediate objection.
The woman filed a second complaint, and DiCapo was placed on administrative leave for the final two weeks of her employment. (She had found another job.) Also, the staff was educated on sexual harassment.
Reached last week, DiCapo denied this account. "Carl DiCapo — you know this — I've never been charged with sexual harassment," he said. "I've kissed about 2,000 girls in Kansas City — and women and men — in my lifetime, and I've never been charged for sexual harassment." (James Bernard Jr., the current chairman of the Liberty Memorial Association board, declined to comment, saying the association would not respond to questions from the press about employee matters.)
DiCapo refuses even to acknowledge that he was put on administrative leave — it doesn't square with his vision of his indispensability at the Liberty Memorial Association. "I put everybody on the board there," he says. "I hired everyone there."
DiCapo says he "raised" $107 million, taking credit for every penny that was donated, earmarked and tax-generated (but mostly tax-generated). "Otherwise, there wouldn't even be a Liberty Memorial."
He also shrugs off his confrontation with Berkheiser. Museum sources say it took place at an unveiling of a donor wall at the World War I Museum last fall. Staff and board members were mortified that the disagreement took place in front of benefactors. DiCapo, however, denies that he had a heated discussion with the general. "Argument? No argument," he says. "He and I are great friends. I hired him." (Berkheiser declined to comment.)
After his ungraceful exit from the Liberty Memorial, DiCapo found another nonprofit to govern. In March, he was named director and president of the board of trustees of the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs.
DiCapo recently sat down with a Shawnee Dispatch reporter to talk about big plans for the hall. He spoke in the self-confident tones that he used when he over-promised the World War I Museum's ability to stand on its own. "I want somebody to tell me I can't do it," he said.