MEDICINE PARK — An aquarium and natural history museum under development in southwest Oklahoma will be reviewed by the state auditor and inspector's office after people signed a petition requesting outside help.
More than two dozen residents of Medicine Park said they are concerned donations and grants are being mismanaged by city leaders and their nonprofit partners as ground is broken on a museum at the east entrance of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.
The petition was circulated by Larry Meese, a former volunteer for the Medicine Park Aquarium and Natural Sciences Center who said donors were duped into believing they were giving to a nonprofit when in fact they were giving to a municipality.
State law restricts municipalities from raising funds, and Meese and supporters said they are concerned the project may fail because the rules were not followed.
“It's going to end up costing our town — our town is going to be on the hook for things because of what our board of trustees and the two public trusts are doing,” said Judy Nesiba.
True, it was a city group and not the museum's nonprofit that accepted and is managing donations received for the museum — but that's how public trusts work, said Doug Kemper, who is managing the project.
Kemper, who headed aquarium openings in Seattle and in Tulsa and managed several zoos during the past 35 years, said he's already raised more than $1.5 million for the project.
The money — including grants from Comanche County Industrial Development Board, Oklahoma Department of Agriculture and Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation — specifically was set aside in a special museum project account, he said.
The museum will be built on property owned by the same trust, he said.
“This project is completely owned by the town of Medicine Park through the Medicine Park Economic Development Authority; the nonprofit museum doesn't own anything,” he said.
Though the nonprofit wasn't established until last year — three years after fundraising began for the museum — that group is only there to help manage and direct its development, Kemper said.
Petitioners complain that the authority is not tax exempt, as claimed, but Kemper said that's not the case.
The Internal Revenue Service website, however, outlines specific qualifications for a public trust that claims tax-exempt status, and there is no record that the Medicine Park authority has been designated as such.
Kemper said money granted to the authority remains in a designated bank account and could be returned today if asked, but said the group was already thoroughly vetted by its granters after Meese sent them letters last fall.
David Porch, chairman of the McMahan Foundation, which gave the museum $300,000, said he only released the money after reviewing the project and project plans.
And Don Hawthorne, the Comanche County commissioner who presides over the Medicine Park area, said he too felt good about an additional $300,000 performance loan awarded the town.
“We got concerned as everybody else did … and then they looked at it, McMahan looked at it,” Hawthorne said. “As far as I'm concerned now everybody is satisfied with it.”
Kemper said museum planners have spent only about $150,000 since the project was hatched three years ago. He said that money has been spent to get level parking areas at the museum site alongside State Highway 49 and that utilities are being installed now.
Kemper is paid about $24,000 annually and is provided an office space with an attached efficiency apartment where he lives. He said he expects the first phase of the project — an aquarium — will be open by this winter, with a botanical garden blooming for the first time next spring.
A zoological park with exhibits, buildings and a grand exhibit hall will come after that, he said.
But Nesiba said she and others will believe it when they see it.
For one, she said, the city agreed to return the $300,000 to Comanche County if the museum didn't have at least $3.6 million in the bank by July. And with only $1.5 million raised in three years she said she can't imagine how the museum could be completed.
“You don't take half a million dollars and build a $30 million entity, with building and construction and everything they've got to do, and then have several million dollars a year to operate this thing year after year,” she said. “They have none of that.”
Trey Davis, spokesman for the state auditor's office, said an auditor will likely begin looking into the Medicine Park museum project in June.