Page 3 of 7
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."