How do Kansas City’s downtown buildings coordinate their lights? A KC Q gets answered

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By Savanna Smith

Every once in a while, the Kansas City skyline lights up in brilliant, seemingly coordinated hues — like everyone got together to make the city shine. Reader Joel Jackson was wondering just how this was possible, so he submitted this question to our "What’s Your KCQ?" series: "How does the Kansas City skyline’s lights get coordinated for special occasions, and which buildings participate?"

Jackson came along with The Star on the reporting process and this is what we found.

Downtown Kansas City buildings

Kansas City hallmarks like Union Station, Power & Light and the Bartle Hall Pylons, alongside other downtown properties, often light their buildings for special occasions and holidays. There’s no master calendar or grand plan. It’s up to each individual property whether or not to participate. But, you could call it a community building exercise. Michael Tritt, chief marketing officer at Union Station said “the affection around Kansas City goes off the charts” when the buildings light up together.

"It’s one thing to put things in words. It’s an entirely different thing ... to create that unforgettable picture."

The Star reporter took a reader's question and brought him behind the scene of the magic of Union Station light shows. By Shelly Yang & Jill Toyoshiba

KC pride glows

Mike Hurd, the director of marketing for Kansas City’s downtown council, said lighting up the sky is really a point of pride for the city. Especially when the city is getting national attention, like when the Royals were in the World Series or during last season’s Chiefs playoff run.

"There’s a time not too long ago when downtown was not robust and we go back 15 years ago ... downtown was struggling,” he said. “The fact that downtown puts on a light show like this from time to time reminds everybody of how far the city has come in such a short time — is really a celebration."

The Downtown Council often plays a role in setting the skyline for success, though Hurd said all credit goes to the properties. He said it would be a stretch to call it coordination but they “help to spread the word.” The council’s step-by-step goes kind of like this:

Step 1: A suggestion is received, usually from a city official or member of the downtown council.

Step 2: A “reasonable question” will be passed on to several downtown properties, asking them to light up the sky on a certain occasion.

Step 3: The “purely voluntary” process is now in the hands of the property owners.

Hurd said Union Station often leads the push. He said he’s not sure exactly how long the city has being doing this, but at least a decade. The turning point, he said, was 2014-15 — for the Royals’ second run to the World Series.

The Brain of Union Station lights

So how exactly is it done? We went to Union Station, Jackson’s favorite building, to find out.

For all its grandeur, we were surprised to find it all happens in a dimly lit room the size of a closet in the basement of Union Station. One computer controls roughly 45 light fixtures.
"This is the brain of our operation," said Alex Cole, an audio visual technician at the station.

Union Station first lit its facade in 2012 for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, according to Margaret Hoang, the assistant marketing manager. Cole ran us through the process. He mixes the light colors on the computer using red, green and blue — the primary colors of light — to orchestrate the show. Not only are the colors controlled by the computer, but also the movement, like the illusion of waves.

Cole said the fixtures communicate with one another. "[The lights] start doing their thing," Cole said. "Whatever we tell them to do."

It’s that simple. With the press of button, Union Station can be bathed in red or blue or the colors of the rainbow. And when other buildings join, it’s a sight to behold. "The downtown city lights coordination is something special that stays with you," KCQ reader Jackson said.

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