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Quindaro Ruins to receive $1M donation. What could it mean for the Civil War era site?

A decades-long effort to preserve the Quindaro Ruins is set to receive the largest sum of money it has ever seen through a government settlement agreement.

The total: $1 million. It’s a figure advocates and city leaders believe could begin to transform the historic site, but it’s unclear exactly how it will be spent.

The money came from a settlement between OnGoal, Sporting KC’s parent company, and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, after Oracle, formerly known as Cerner, left Kansas City, Kansas, before fulfilling obligations tied to state incentives. OnGoal had been a guarantor for Cerner on the agreement.

“We want that to be a wonderful message that this was the gateway to freedom to many Americans in our country,” County Administrator David Johnston said this week at a speech.

The funding represents a major windfall for Quindaro preservation after years of slow progress and insufficient funding to restore the ruins of the Civil War era boomtown and outpost along the Underground Railroad.

The project became something of a political football this spring after the Republican-controlled Legislature appropriated $250,000 for a strategic plan for the site after state Rep. Marvin Robinson, a Kansas City Democrat who has spent decades advocating for Quindaro, voted with Republicans to override Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s vetoes on policies limiting access to food stamps and regulating the lives of transgender Kansans.

Kelly vetoed the funding. But in the time since, Republican lawmakers have pledged future support for the project, federal lawmakers are pushing to make the site a National Historic Landmark — a step above its current status as a National Commemorative Site — and Kelly’s administration negotiated the settlement that could bring the project more money than it has ever seen. That change in designation would bring a higher status and an easier pathway to grants.

“I was very grateful to the governor because she showed she’s a larger public leader than what I had perceived,” Robinson said of the settlement.

However, he’s concerned the funding will ultimately be squandered on yet another set of plans for the site rather than invested in work to preserve the ruins before it’s too late. The ruins have 22 foundations that are still discernible.

“They’ve been planning for all these years,” Robinson said. “There hasn’t been any activity to preserve them since 2008.”

The money is earmarked for building improvements, including “land acquisition, master planning, a new Welcome Center, Museum and other improvements,” according to the settlement.

A Wyandotte County spokesperson said the Unified Government will not receive the funds until 2024.

The Rev. Stacy Evans, who chairs the Quindaro Ruins Project Foundation board, said $1 million would easily be the most money the project has received.

The money will go through the Unified Government, which in the past has not always been a “good partner,” said Evans, who has been spearheading efforts to preserve Quindaro since 2009. But she is hopeful the project will see the money after meeting with Johnston, who was hired earlier this year.

Evans would like to use the money to create a design plan, at between $250,000 to $350,000, and to hire a project manager, for probably around $100,000. The rest of that money could be used to stabilize the foundations, she said.

In the future, the foundation wants to create trails with signs and interactive activities, an amphitheater and an archive interpretive center, among other attractions.

“That’s way more than a million dollars,” Evans said, noting that those estimates are in the tens of millions.

A ‘national jewel’

Supporting efforts to restore the ruins to become a “destination attraction” is among Wyandotte County’s legislative priorities for the upcoming session in Topeka.

It’s a new item among the Unified Government’s priority list, Assistant County Administrator Alan Howze said at a special session last week when city and county officials hosted the state delegation.

Mayor Tyrone Garner said Johnston is taking the lead on getting a “robust proposal” on the ruins to the Board of Commissioners, the county’s governing body.

“I had been asked by several individuals: If I had my magic wand, what would I want,” Garner said. “Well, I’d love to see a billion dollar STAR bond project that would link the Quindaro Ruins to the Rock Island Bridge as two anchoring economic development tourist destinations, and everything in between that redeveloped.”

Redeveloping the Rock Island Bridge, near Hy-Vee Arena in the West Bottoms, into an entertainment destination over the Kansas River is expected to be completed next year.

Linking it to the ruins, Garner said, could “totally transform” northeast KCK, downtown and the Armourdale neighborhood. He believed it could be done, given bipartisan support on the issue.

“We all see Wyandotte County as being the gateway to Kansas,” Garner said, adding that such revitalization east of Interstate 635 would be “monumental.”

Wyandotte County officials have heard from state and federal lawmakers that the county needs to show them “something” to invest in the ruins, Johnston said. Local leaders have gotten that message “loud and clear,” he said, noting officials will be working on a master plan over the next year.

At his State of the Government address, Garner said Tuesday investment opportunities were being cultivated to make the ruins “the national jewel it has always deserved to be.”

County commissioners then voted Thursday to create a 14-member advisory board to coordinate economic redevelopment strategies for eastern KCK, which includes the ruins and riverfront areas. The members will come from fields in “economic development, finance, historic preservation and law” and will hold monthly meetings.

“We don’t need to kick this can down the road any further,” Commissioner Chuck Stites, District 7, said before the vote. “Let’s see where this takes us.”