It's still spring, and tickets are selling strong for the Bodies Revealed exhibit in the bowels of Union Station.
On this late-April Saturday, the parents of two children — one boy and one girl — are picking up their exhibit tickets at the box office. Next to them, a woman paces in front of the ticket windows; some in her group weren't able to make it, and she's giving away a free pair.
The family enters the exhibit, seeing for themselves the plasticized corpses flaunted for months on banners and billboards and in newspaper ads. They seem as interested and excited as all the other patrons walking around the glass cases full of bones, past the once-living men and women frozen in athletic motion and flayed to the muscle tissue. They wander through the room that shows the circulatory system and on to the respiratory room, with its cancerous lung and its Plexiglas box filled a foot high with discarded cigarette boxes. Finally they come to the cadavers of pregnant women and the bodies sliced into dozens of sections suspended inches from one another, so that a man less than six feet tall when alive now stretches close to 20 feet long. The family spends time at each information card, the parents taking turns reading to their kids, who both look younger than 10. They make jokes and seem to be having a good time.
It's exactly the type of educational family experience that Andi Udris, Union Station's CEO and president, says the place is supposed to foster.
When these visitors are finished at Bodies, they don't pause in the gift shop, though the boy's eyes widen at boxes of plastic miniature replicas of the skulls and intestines they've just seen. They don't stop at any of Union Station's restaurants for lunch, though the Bistro at Union Station and the Harvey House Diner are reasonably priced and, at the moment, equally without a glut of customers. Instead, the family walks straight out of the building and back to the parking garage without leaving behind another dime.
Two floors above the exhibit, a middle-aged waitress is attending to no one at the Harvey House. She stands behind the long, rectangular counter, next to a rotating display of pies. Down one end of the counter is a single man with a cane resting against a neighboring stool, eating a cheeseburger. Behind her, another solitary customer reads the paper and drinks a cup of coffee. All but two booths are empty.
"It's not too busy lately," the waitress says. "Mostly the rushes come when people are on their lunch break, but that's never too bad. Usually it's pretty quiet."
The problem with Union Station isn't that families who see Bodies Revealed leave without spending more money.
It's that those families are basically the only visitors the place gets anymore.
The man in charge of turning that around is Udris, who took over as head of Union Station in May 2005, succeeding interim CEO Sean O'Byrne, who served for 11 months after the resignation of Turner White in June 2004. White had been the station's director and CEO since it reopened in November 1999, renovated with revenues from a bistate tax devoted to saving the station. By the end of White's tenure, Science City attendance had been disappointing, philanthropic support had evaporated, the station was losing an estimated $5 million a year and the public had grown frustrated with what seemed like a constant stream of bad news about the finances of the beloved — but largely unused and crushingly expensive to operate — landmark.
"I got here, and there was this sense from the staff that they were on the Titanic and it was all going down," Udris says. "It was a done deal."
Since then, there's been plenty of reason to think that the naysayers were right and the ship is just taking an unusually long time to sink.
Bodies Revealed will fall far short of its projected 250,000 attendance, with only 165,052 tickets sold as of August 12. That's fewer than the 177,728 people who came to Dead Sea Scrolls in 2007, which made approximately $2 million more in revenue for Union Station than Bodies Revealed will have by the time it closes.
The next long-term exhibit will be Dialog in the Dark, booked October 17 through February 8, which will send ticket buyers into a pitch-black space and lead them through exercises replicating a blind person's experience. Union Station officials have no attendance projection for the show, which has not yet completed a run at any U.S. venue. It's expected to draw fewer visitors than Bodies Revealed because it will run for a shorter period and because it can accommodate fewer guests per hour.
The success of Dead Sea Scrolls was the primary reason that Union Station finished 2007 without a deficit for the first time since the building reopened. Based on revenue projections from Bodies Revealed, Udris hoped he could end this year without a deficit, too. Despite Bodies' lower-than-expected attendance, Union Station spokeswoman Sarah Biles says the building will end its year in the black.
Udris has yet to land an exhibit as popular as Titanic, which sold 282,372 tickets in 2001.
When Udris started, the station had 207 employees. In June 2006, he eliminated 34 full-time and 25 part-time positions; the staff is now down to 144 workers, 110 of them full time. Operations have come to rely more on volunteers, going from an estimated 35 volunteers when Udris started to 522 volunteers working a combined 41,056 hours in 2007 (most of those hours devoted to duties associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit).
Meanwhile, station leaders have looked for ways to attract customers. Before Udris arrived, board members believed that the answer was a railroad museum. Most Union Station visitors said they wanted to see trains. The KC Rail Experience opened in 2005 with the promise that it would be a must-see for tourists. Today, the ticket is part of the Science City package, and management doesn't even track attendance. The Dino Lab opened as part of Science City in 2005, with officials estimating that it could raise Science City attendance as much as 20 percent, but Union Station reported that Science City attendance actually dropped from 282,602 in 2005 to 275,982 in 2006. Last year's Science City attendance — excluding special exhibits — was 219,202.
In February, a report on the building's operation was produced by an ad hoc committee separate from Union Station's board of directors, who had asked for an independent review of how well the station's management was following the recommendations of a previous task force. The report showed that, to keep the station financially stable, the station had continued to delay necessary maintenance estimated at $1.7 million. The money spent for maintenance has gradually decreased since 2004, from $2,860,787 that year to $2,349,132 in 2007. Udris says it's been more than a decade since the building has had what he calls "any real maintenance overhaul." And Union Station still owes more than $2 million in unpaid bills.
According to that February report, most Union Station visitors don't spend money at the shops or restaurants, and management relies on blockbuster exhibits such as Bodies Revealed to put operations in the black.
Udris heads an increasingly overworked and uncertain staff. He says he keeps morale up as well as he can with bonuses when he can afford them and appreciation dinners for volunteers. He tries to keep the staff he has braced against a heavy workload, but the threat of resignation is common.
"Sometimes I probably do ask too much," Udris says. "I try to do everything I can with what I have, and I've got great people here, but it's a lot of work for anyone."
The rest of the time, Udris describes his job as primarily asking for money from private entities and past supporters.
Udris has spent most of his professional career in some form of economic development.
"When I came here, I thought all I had to do was change the attitude of the organization and that things would fall in line from there," Udris says. "We just needed, like any business, to change our way of thinking about how we're going to make money. I learned pretty quick that I was wrong, because I didn't realize what keeping this building together really meant, and it comes down to maintenance we can't afford."
He gives an example. "The band on the escalator broke this year, and that was $50,000. I stay awake at night, worried the heating and cooling are going to go out and cost $300,000 or some huge amount we don't have. That's when I learned that you can't do big overhauls in this position or make big changes, because the money isn't there to do it."
The February ad hoc report did offer some hope — if Udris could convince voters to back it, they could establish a 5-cent tax on Kansas City property owners to raise $2.6 million a year that, along with projected private donations, would create a $52 million endowment within the next decade to keep the building out of debt.
Udris hoped to get the proposal on the ballot this fall, but a City Council committee didn't meet the deadline. It's uncertain when the issue will make it to a general election ballot.
Earlier this summer, Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser suggested that Union Station could draw more visitors by being a hub for the city's unbuilt light rail. But in July, Councilman Russ Johnson, heading a meeting of the City Council's Transportation Committee, announced that the building wouldn't be feasible as part of the light-rail plan. "Another one floats away," Udris says — another unfulfilled plan to help Union Station.
"I took this job because I like lost causes," Udris says.
Udris first came to Kansas City in 2001 as president and CEO of Kansas City's Economic Development Corporation, after working at similar positions in Cleveland and Cincinnati. He made his name here making deals with developers while city-finance watchers worried about the EDC's lavish use of tax incentives. Among Udris' higher-profile accomplishments: trading on his longtime relationship with the Cordish Company, he brought the Power & Light District idea to then-Mayor Kay Barnes, and courted H&R Block when it considered building its new headquarters downtown.
It's the salesman in him that shines when Udris talks about his time at Union Station. He considers 2007's Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit a triumph not only because of the crowds and the money it drew but also because of what it took to convince people it was a good idea to begin with.
"It was right after we'd had our big round of layoffs, and everyone's looking at me like, 'What, are you crazy? There's no way we've got the people to pull that off.'" Udris says. "But we found a way to do it and make it work with the volunteers we brought in, and it was a success."
But all of Udris' sales skills might not be enough to convince Kansas City that it has an obligation to enact a 5-cent property tax.
He knows people are bitter about the perceived failure of Science City. When he meets people from out of town and tells them he works at Union Station, they're often under the impression that the building went bankrupt and closed years ago.
"I get it if people say they can't afford to do a tax. What bothers me is when I hear people who almost want to be vindictive, like they want to punish someone for past failures," Udris says.
"There's this hate toward Science City — 'Evildoers! You lied to us!' But look back. You see there's no way that place was ever going to achieve the numbers they said it would. I think people were more concerned about getting the building rehabbed and going, and then figuring out how to keep it going later on.
"All I can say to that thinking — this idea that we've had our chance — is that people have to make a choice whether they want to let this building slip back into the way it was and just let the city move on, or if they want to get over it."
If the endowment isn't approved, Udris says, his plans should keep the Station sound through 2010. After that, it's hard to say what will happen.
Still, any good salesman needs to give you a reason to buy. Whenever Udris tries to explain what property owners will get for their $2 million-plus a year if the endowment is approved, he spends less time on practical reasoning than on nostalgia.
"The science portion is definitely needed. There's not a single major city that doesn't have a science center," he says. "More than that, it's a community icon. You have to have that to be in a major city, whether that's the Arch in St. Louis or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. We've got the Liberty Memorial, and we've got this."
But we have other things, too — with more on the way.
In Overland Park, there's a stretch of undeveloped land along the 6000 block of West 135th Street that's poised to target the same science and history enthusiasts Union Station is relying on to stay solvent.
A white sign planted on the edge of the road heralds the future home of the Prairiefire development, scheduled to open by fall 2010.
Prairiefire is the brainchild of Fred and Candy Merrill, owners of a real estate development, brokerage and investment company with headquarters across the street from the open field.
The Merrills call Prairiefire a "lifestyle shopping center." It will mainly be a retail development, but it's slated to have a unique attraction that makes Udris nervous.
As part of an agreement for traveling exhibits with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the development will include a museum area scheduled to feature two science and history exhibits a year through 2020.
"We started talking to the Museum of Natural History around March of last year, and they really wanted a place to house these exhibitions that aren't normally seen out here," says Fred Merrill, 56, president of Merrill Companies.
"The thoughts going into this were the same questions every museum in town has: How do you get people in the doors when most people going to these museums are in their 40s and 50s, and you're trying to attract people in their 20s and 30s? So now, with the shopping center and farmers market and a big stage for live music, you're going to have a lot of things to draw people in. And if you are in your 40s or 50s, mom can go shopping while dad takes the kids to see the snake exhibit."
The AMNH, almost 140 years old and located on Manhattan's Upper West Side, includes 45 halls of exhibitions and claims to attract millions of visitors annually. In 2004, it was named the country's third-most-popular family destination by the Zagat Survey U.S. Family Travel Guide. According to Charles McLean, the AMNH's senior vice president of communications and marketing, Prairiefire's first few years of exhibits are already set. The first will be about dinosaurs, with explanations of how dinosaur research is done and the most up-to-date information on how scientists are reinterpreting dinosaurs' movements, behavior and extinction.
The Merrills will be responsible for promoting the shows, but McLean says the AMNH will give them marketing support, including printed materials and images. "We'll do whatever we can to help them make it successful," McLean says.
"You can couch this in the sense that we're trying this as an experiment," he adds. "Hopefully, it'll do as well as we think it will. It's nothing we've tried anywhere else, really. It's an opportunity for us to bring the content we normally only do with big museums in larger cities into the middle of America."
Roughly a third of Union Station's members are residents of Johnson County. The Prairiefire exhibits will focus on that same group of metro residents, who partly define Union Station's mission.
"When other people get into entertainment using history and science, then that bothers me," Udris says. The exhibitions at Prairiefire, he says, will compete directly with those at Union Station. "When I hear about that, I get nervous. In a way, it scares the hell out of me."
"We're not competing — we're enhancing," Candy Merrill counters. "This can raise the bar for everywhere and bring greater attention to all our museums."
More potential competition for the education-entertainment dollar arrived earlier this month, when city officials announced that four groups had submitted proposals for a major downtown aquarium — an effort clearly aimed at not losing out to the developers of a $307 million mixed-use project in Mission anchored by an aquarium.
Also submitting proposals were the Port Authority of Kansas City, the Cordish Company (with commercial realty firm Copaken, White & Blitt) and an unnamed fourth group.
"We had maybe two weeks to rush the proposal together, and we had to do that just so we wouldn't be out of the running," Udris says of Union Station's aquarium proposal. "If that aquarium goes anywhere other than us, it's going to hurt us. That's all there is to it. It's going to take away dollars, and we'll have to look at cutting even more staff, or something. But I don't think the city is really planning with us in mind."
On a hot mid-July afternoon in the basement of the Steamboat Arabia Museum, co-owner Greg Hawley is considering a 14-inch length of pipe laid on a folded hand towel, a dark circle of water bleeding out beneath it. The inside is rusted and black, with bits of sand along the cracked edge where the pipe burst. Upstairs, the small gift shop at the entrance to the exhibit is scattered with retirees perusing T-shirts and knickknacks. Below, Hawley waits for the next tour group to walk through the ship's deck and hull room and the gallery of 19th-century cargo salvaged from the sunken steamboat.
Until the Port Authority of Kansas City proposed building an aquarium west of Berkley Riverfront Park that would incorporate the Arabia's exhibits, the Arabia seemed destined for a new home in Parkville. Hawley and his family co-owners, hoping to keep the museum closer to home, had talked with a nonprofit in Independence and with Union Station.
"The 100,000 or 150,000 [people] we bring in every year isn't going to solve their problems," Hawley says of Union Station. "Andy's got such a tough time just heating and cooling that place. Those numbers don't mean much."
But Hawley has a pretty good idea where to find another lost ship, and if he's right, he says, he's three years away from expanding the attraction and doubling his attendance.
"If we find that boat, I've got no doubt our attendance is going to go to 250,000 at least. And under those numbers, all of a sudden, we go a long way toward solving Union Station's financial woes."
But it's not likely the Arabia will ever move to Union Station, partly because there's not a good location above the lower levels that would accommodate the boat's artifacts. Hawley's last meeting with Union Station officials was close to two years ago. He pitched the idea of bringing in some type of plane to add to the boat artifacts and Union Station's existing train memorabilia to create a broader transportation exhibit. Hawley and his partners couldn't reach a deal with Union Station or the Independence group because no one would agree to keep the collection together.
"We did talk to Andi. It was shortly after he started there," Hawley says. "And, like the group in Independence, he wanted to sell off artifacts if he had a bad year. That was written into the contract. We couldn't believe it. We did get pretty firm with him, and he did strike it out of the deal."
By that time, however, Hawley didn't trust Union Station.
"I think Andi's doing a good job down there," Hawley says. "But it ruined our faith in them being good stewards of this collection."
It's late August, and there are two weeks left until the end of Bodies Revealed. A pair of women come up the escalator, having just finished the tour, and the volunteer watching the gate is standing, hands folded across her belly, waiting for someone to approach.
Upstairs from the entrance of the exhibit, Science City is open and waiting for visitors. The ticket taker sits at the gate, slumped forward with the sports page of The Kansas City Star laid across his knees.
Today there are no kids on school field trips. Elderly couples escort the few children who are present.
Waiting for the elevator, another woman old enough to draw Social Security admonishes the two boys she's with to have more fun. "School starts soon, then there won't be any more days of fun like this," she says. "When I was your age, I would've been on this like stink on a bug."
At the Dino Lab, a little boy slides his hands over pictures of the world's original dinosaur researchers. "Wow!" he exclaims. "They're all dead!"
The miniature golf course is empty, as are the echoing caves. A white-haired woman waits next to a plastic sewer pipe in the Public Works wing of the exhibit, listening for a boy who has crawled a dozen feet back into the tubing. The chairs in the Periodic Table exhibit are empty.
The planetarium's door is open for the noon show. A few families and some more grandparents trickle in and wait for the lights to dim and the constellations to shine and the lasers to flash. For every chair taken, another three are empty. There are just enough people to make turning on the stars seem worthwhile.
In the astronaut-training simulator, the recorded voice repeats, "Is there a remote chance that there's an astronaut trainee that can help me on this? Does anyone read me?" Fewer than 10 feet away, another robotic voice warns of technical failures.
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