The basement of the Oklahoma History Center is packed floor-to-ceiling with artifacts waiting for the space to tell their story to the public, says Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
But that space — a proposed $42.5 million museum of popular culture in Tulsa — depends on funding approval from the Oklahoma Legislature this session, something that has proved elusive for the project to date.
Last session, the Senate approved a $20 million bond issue to fund the OK Pop Museum in Tulsa, but the House never considered the bill.
“I think it's going to be very difficult to get any bond issue passed through the Legislature,” said Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid.
“We've become much more fiscally responsible.”
Anderson, who opposed the Pops Museum funding, said he would be much more likely to support projects like the restoration of the Capitol building or the medical examiner's office.
“A good project, a needed project, I think the Legislature could act to do something,” he said. “A want versus a need I think it's going to be much more difficult to get the Legislature to approve that.”
Lawmakers will likely consider bond issues for multiple projects during the 2013 legislative session, including restorations of the crumbing state Capitol, the unfinished and financially broke American Indian Cultural Center and Museum and other state buildings.
Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman said he is still supportive of the Pops Museum.
“We want to look at alternative ways that we can get that funded, including possibly turning it private,” Bingman said. “We have capital needs, many capital projects statewide and we've just got to figure out a way we can prioritize and figure out a way to get them done.”
Blackburn said Monday he hopes a bit of financial-strategy this year will give the museum the political support it needs.
In the past, his agency has requested a bond issue that increases the state debt level, something a cadre of politicians is vocally opposed to at the Capitol.
Instead, Blackburn said the Historical Society will issue bonds to replace existing debt as it is paid off.
In 1999, the state agency sold $32 million in bonds to start construction on the Oklahoma History Center building at 800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive.
A second bond issue was taken out for $18 million to finish the project.
The 215,000 square-foot museum has been complete for years but the agency still makes $2.5 million payments annually on the debt.
That funding comes from the general revenue stream and is allocated to the History Center to pay off the debt.
Blackburn said that debt will be paid off in 2019, at which time that $2.5 million can be used to make debt-payments for the new OK Pop Museum with some money left over for exhibits.
“All we need is the vehicle to sell the bond issue,” Blackburn said.
Blackburn said there will be a three-year overlap between when the History Center must start making payments on the new debt and before the old debt is paid off.
He said during that time, private donors and other revenue streams will be used to close the funding gap.
“The city of Tulsa has pledged $3 million that could be a possibility of filling that gap,” Blackburn said.
“We think that's somewhere around $6.6 million based on estimates right now.”
Anderson said keeping the payments the same, but for a new project is the same as new debt.
“We do a bond issue with the idea of we're going to build something, pay it off and then the investment ends,” Anderson said. “This would obviously be extending that with a new project.”
The Bank of Oklahoma has donated a parking lot in the Brady Arts District that would be the site of the 75,000 square foot building that will be four stories tall.
The gift was made on the condition that the state also build a 650 space parking garage on the majority of the lot and dedicate 300 of those spaces to Bank of Oklahoma employees during working hours, forever.
Jeff Moore, project director of OK Pop, said the garage will cost about $10 million to construct and the value of the land was about $2.6 million when the donation was first made.
Blackburn said the revenue from the remaining parking spaces in the garage and all the parking spaces during evenings and weekends would help support the operations of the museum.
“We have a good solid business plan; $2.1 million a year with Jeff's staff, with utilities, with housekeeping, maintenance, all of that,” Blackburn said.
“We have a conservative business plan to generate that. Now we'll need a little endowment … to help a little bit.”
He said they need a modest $3 million endowment to help with operations, but after that the museum should be self-funding. The museum would be opened in late 2016 or early 2017.
Anderson suggested the Historical Society take the project to a vote of the people.
“I have another alternative and that is to do what the state constitution requires and submit it to a vote of the people,” Anderson said.
They don't have to involve the Legislature to authorize new debt for this project.”