Future of American Indian museum project uncertain

By Murray Evans
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (AP) May 2011

Work crews have spent five years building the $170 million American Indian Cultural Center and Museum southeast of downtown. Whether construction will continue is up in the air.

State Senate leaders last week rejected a $40 million bond package to supplement $67.4 million committed through previous bonds. Project developers fear work might stop in August, but they remain committed to seeing the project through to completion.

“It’s not `if’ we’re building it, it’s `when,”’ said Gena Timberman, the museum’s executive director. “That vision still lives on. It’s important we stay committed to the task.” She fears stop-and-go construction will raise the cost of the project.

Work began in 2006, with more than $91 million already spent to date. To maintain construction, the museum received $6 million in federal stimulus money last October, and Gov. Mary Fallin and others supported a proposed $40 million bond package during the 2011 legislative session.

Project officials were hopeful additional state funds and privately raised matching funds would carry the museum to completion by 2015, but the sudden halt in funding leaves major questions: What will become of the museum and what will become of its potential as an anchor for commercial development?

A 2009 study by the Applied Economics research group said the project would create a $3.8 billion economic impact in the first two decades after its completion; State Sen. Dan Newberry calls it a “hole in the ground.”

Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, called for an audit regarding of the use of state dollars for construction of the project. Timberman said she’d welcome such an audit and is always open to having legislators visit the construction site, to see first-hand how the money is being used.

The museum is being built along the Oklahoma River, near downtown at the junction of cross-country interstates 35 and 40. The 300 acres donated by the city of Oklahoma City for the museum used to be the site of an oilfield, meaning extensive cleanup was required before construction could begin. A visitor center already is finished, along with a 90-foot-high promontory mound, and white steel support beams for the museum’s Hall of the People rise above the landscape.

According to the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority, a state agency that oversees the project, $50 million was used to remediate the site, to build the mound and visitors center, to start work on the museum’s galleries and east wing and for interim debt service. Another $41 million went for more gallery and east wing construction and initial work on the Hall of the People and performance facility.

Critics also say the state’s 39 federally recognized American Indian tribes should help pay for the museum. State Sen. Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma City, noted that “a certain tribe who is behind the Native American Cultural Center just bought two racetracks in Texas for more money than what they require from the state to finish the cultural center.”

The Ada-based Chickasaw Nation bought Remington Park in Oklahoma City for $80.25 million in January 2010 and this month paid $47.8 million for Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas. Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby is chairman of the NACEA board. Through a spokesman, Anoatubby said he was “very disappointed” the bond issue didn’t receive a vote in the Senate.

The tribes maintain the state should fund its own project, because it’s the state that will benefit from the project. According to Timberman, they’ve already kicked in $4.7 million to help cover debt service.

“All along this has been a state-funded project that has been supported by other donors, including Cherokee Nation and other tribal governments,” Cherokee Nation spokesman Mike Miller said. “We’ve contributed what we said we would to the project, with the assumption that the state would do the same. Unfortunately, the state is having to make difficult choices due to budget circumstances. It is hard to expect other donors to put in more money to the state’s project when the state won’t.”

According to numbers prepared by the NACEA, delaying the project by one year will result in a $6.1 million increase in construction costs and $4 million in lost state tax revenues. The state would be liable for the unfinished project and would have to pay for security costs, Timberman said.

Demolishing the facilities that already have been built would cost $38.1 million, the study said. But building something else at the site doesn’t appear to be a suitable option for the state, because the land given to the NACEA by Oklahoma City would revert to the city if the museum isn’t built, city spokeswoman Jane Abraham said.

Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said the NACEA once said it wouldn’t need any more state money to finish the project, citing a May 2008 news release from the museum – issued about the time the Legislature approved a $25 million bond issue for the project – that said “The remaining $75 million (for the project) will come from private sources, including American Indian Tribes.”

“A false dichotomy is being put forth: that we must either pass the additional $40 million bond, which the agency in 2008 said they wouldn’t need, or we must bulldoze the $91 million investment,” Treat said. “This is simply untrue, and no one is advocating this idea. We simply want to take a closer look at this issue before piling on more debt.”

As things stand now, Timberman said construction on the project will end in August and won’t resume until more funding is in place. It’s uncertain when that might occur. State Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, plans to conduct an interim study this year concerning proposed bond issues.

“We have a lot of capital needs in addition to existing bond obligations that need to be prioritized before we make decisions about additional bonding,” Bingman said.

Bingman, Fallin and House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, all have said they’d like to see the project finished, but want to pay for it in a fiscally responsible fashion. They haven’t said what that might look like.

In the meantime, Timberman said museum officials are re-evaluating their fundraising plans. She had planned to use the carrot of the state money to encourage donors. Now, she said, raising money will be difficult, because potential donors don’t want to give money to “something that you don’t know will ever be finished.”

Still, she remains optimistic the museum will eventually open.

“We have one shot at this time to do it right,” she said. “We have one opportunity to brand Oklahoma as the gateway to Indian country. We have an opportunity to provide visitors a rare experience. ... We’ve gone too far to turn back.”




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