Monday, March 01, 2010

KC's struggling Union Station makes switch to new track

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It may not be as much fun. It's not what was promised. But it will be open, and that's undoubtedly a success, the Kansas City Star reports. 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 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.

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