The new director of the unfinished American Indian Cultural Center and Museum said the project could end up costing a lot of money simply to maintain what's been built.
Private donations are being sought to complete the work.
Blake Wade, who headed Oklahoma's Centennial celebration, was named the new executive director of the cultural center in November.
The task given to him, he said, is fairly simple.
“This thing is halfway through,” Wade said. “My job, you could say, is to help raise the $80 million we need to complete it.”
Wade said the goal is get $40 million in the form of private donations, with the state of Oklahoma covering the rest through appropriations.
Not doing so — and not doing so with a sense of urgency — could cost the state big time.
“Every year we stall, this goes up in price. ... That's why I came on board,” Wade said. “Even if we stop and do nothing out there at the site, it's still going to cost us $500,000 a year just to mothball it.”
Reports also suggest that up to $4 million in revenue will be lost for each year the cultural center opening is delayed.
Wade said he will begin talking with lawmakers between now and the start of the next legislative session. He said elected officials must be ready to act in order to get the project done.
“In my opinion, it's gone too long,” Wade said. “We've got to act on this in the next legislation session.”
And things are off to a good start, he said.
“We already have $20 million, which is half of what we need,” Wade said, adding that private pledges are kept confidential. “But it's all contingent on the state providing the matching dollars.”
During the last legislative session, lawmakers failed to authorize $40 million in bonds to keep the project moving.
To date, the state has already invested $67.4 million in the project, with the federal government adding another $16.3 million, according to the center's website.
Private contributions, including $5 million provided by Oklahoma tribes, totals $6.7 million.
If all goes according to Wade's plan, the cultural center could be open “in three to four years.”
Quest to finish
Wade has some help in the quest to finish the ambitious project, which already includes a giant promontory mound, the modern-looking “Hall of People” sculptures and shells of buildings not yet complete.
A new TV ad with sweeping aerial views of Oklahoma City and two former governors has been airing in recent weeks, reminding Oklahomans about the importance of finishing the massive American Indian Cultural Center and Museum.
Wade also has a new fundraising team full of heavy-hitters, including well-known event planner Lee Allan Smith, Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett, and former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer.
The commercial, produced by Ackerman McQueen and paid for by the Chickasaw Nation, doesn't feature a specific call to action, like most ads do, but the message is fairly clear.
Former state heads Frank Keating and Brad Henry each appear in the ad, touting the revitalized downtown, the Oklahoma River and even the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The project began under Keating's watch in the 1990s, and he believes the cultural center, situated on 210 acres where Interstates 35 and 40 meet, could be “a boon for Oklahoma.”
The former governor, who now works as an executive in Washington, D.C., said other American Indian cultural centers, including the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, are too broad in their scope.
“The Smithsonian blends all the tribes together and it includes tribes from outside the U.S.,” Keating said. “Oklahoma's will focus on the 39 tribes we have here in Oklahoma.”
Keating went on to say that he doesn't think that asking for “public investment” through private philanthropy is a far-fetched idea.
“These are things that states do create destinations to bring in visitors to the state,” he said. “We need facilities like that in Oklahoma.”
The former governors and their wives weren't paid to be in the commercial, Keating said.
“I want to see this come together,” the former governor said. “I'll do anything I can to make it a success.”
Wade said a large commercial development area to the east of the cultural center won't be built out unless the museum is complete.
He said that development and the museum “will add another pearl to the Oklahoma River.”
“It will stop cars going through our great state and they'll spend time in Oklahoma,” Wade said. “We were almost there last session but they did not have the private funds to match.
“That's why they hired me.”
Even though many tribes already have cultural centers and museums — including the Chickasaw Nation's $40 million cultural center in Sulphur which opened in July 2010 — Wade said he expects them to do more.
“My goal is to get each of the 39 federally recognized tribes to contribute in some way. ... I think that's crucial moving forward,” he said. “Some of them have already been very generous with us, but we feel like more can be done to that end.”
Keating agreed, saying that he expects tribes to do as much as they can to help finish the project.
“We are known for our Native American heritage here in Oklahoma, and we have one of the largest tribal populations in the country,” the former governor said. “It's something we certainly hope they can contribute to, especially given the reason for the support.”
Enoch Kelly Haney, who was serving in the state Legislature when the state agency administering the cultural center was created, said he disagrees with Keating and Blake.
“Why should tribes be asked to contribute more than they already have?” Haney said. “This is a state agency. How often do see state agencies asking for private money to finish projects of this size?”
The former Seminole Nation chief, who describes himself as a semiretired artist, said he is looking forward to the museum opening, but maintains that tribes have done enough for the project.
“The reason for the museum is to let Native people tell their own stories,” Haney said.
“They have never been able to do that up until now — everyone's done it for them.”