The future of Oklahoma City’s partially built American Indian Cultural Center and Museum received a crushing blow Friday.
The governor and legislative leaders announced they have reached a budget agreement, and it includes no money to help complete the project.
“If this result stands, it will haunt my community for years, and it should haunt the legacy of those in this building who could have done something about it,” said state Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City.
Lawmakers had been asked to come up with $40 million in state funds that could be used to match $40 million in pledges to complete the $170 million museum.
The state Senate, with support from the governor, approved a bill that would have paid the state’s portion from the Unclaimed Property Fund.
House members refused to go along.
Omission called ‘disappointing’
Oklahoma City civic leader Lee Allan Smith called the House’s refusal a “slap in the face” to Devon Energy, Continental Resources Inc., Chesapeake Energy Corp. and all the other companies and community leaders who pledged matching funds because they believe the museum is important to the state.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s disappointing. It’s mystifying,” said Smith, who spearheaded the effort to obtain pledges from private donors.
Smith said it makes no sense that the House would want to continue paying $5 million a year in bond payment on an empty building when it could pay to finish the project and start receiving revenue back to pay off its investment.
House Speaker Jeff Hickman said it was a matter of priorities for House members.
“We simply weren’t able to get agreement,” Hickman said.
“I think the main issue was the budget issue we found ourselves in and the priorities of the House, particularly to address funding for education and for state employee pay.
“We know we have to do something with that facility at some point and that’s our intent. We just don’t have a plan today to be able to do that,” he said.
Bigger problem ahead?
Smith said he was told many rural House members opposed the project because they questioned how it would help their communities.
Smith said he finds that argument disturbing because Oklahoma City taxpayers have for years paid taxes to support facilities for the airport, the Thunder, the RedHawks and other teams and events that attract and are enjoyed by people from throughout the state who don’t bear the brunt of their cost.
Schoolchildren and residents from all over the state would visit the museum, Smith said, adding that it would be a world-class museum which would attract hundreds of millions in economic development that would benefit all Oklahomans.
State Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, said the state is likely to face an even bigger problem with museum funding in the future once individuals and corporations have been released from their matching pledges.
“I’m incredibly nervous that the people who have been very patient with the pledges of $40 million that have been made to match $40 million in requested state funding will exhaust their patience and will leave and the state will be left with an $80 million problem,” Jolley said.
“It is a failure of the Legislature to act for the last 20 years,” Jolley said.
Hopeful for solution
About $91 million has been spent on the museum so far, but builders ran out of money in July 2012.
Since then, the state agency that runs it has been paying about $68,000 a month to secure and maintain the site, which is located just southeast of the intersection of Interstate 40 and Interstate 35 in Oklahoma City.
“There’s millions of dollars in equipment out there that have lost their warranties or are losing their warranties — deterioration of the site. It’s a bad deal,” said Blake Wade, executive director of the organization developing the museum.
What will happen now is difficult to determine.
Wade said he believes donors will at least wait until the end of the session to see whether lawmakers change their minds before rescinding their pledges.
“There’s millions of dollars out there, and it’s their responsibility,” Wade said.
“Hopefully, they’ll have a solution.”