With a $40 million decision looming, about a dozen state lawmakers took to the road Tuesday.
The purpose of their road trip was to tour a cavernous 173,000-square-foot concrete and steel structure in Oklahoma City and hear the visions of boosters who hope to soon turn that vacant shell into a world-class American Indian Cultural Center and Museum.
“The potential is tremendous,” said J. Blake Wade, executive director of the entity developing the museum.
The museum overflows with tribal symbolism.
Its circular design is symbolic of the circularity of life found in nature and is reflective of the circular formations often found in American Indian social and ceremonial activities that take place in circular arenas.
Prominent museum features are designed to align with sunrises and sunsets of seasonal equinoxes.
About 156,000 vehicles a day pass by the site, located just southeast of the intersection of Interstate 40 and Interstate 35. Those vehicles are filled with Europeans, Asians and Americans — many of whom yearn to know more about the American Indian culture, he said. And Oklahoma is the right place to satisfy those yearnings, since it is home to 39 federally recognized tribes with vibrant and diverse cultures.
The problem is money.
State funds sought
About $91 million has been spent on the project 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.
Backers say it will take $80 million to finish the museum, and they have $40 million in pledges lined up if the state will just provide the other $40 million.
The state Senate is supportive — having already voted to spend $40 million from the state’s Unclaimed Property Fund to finish the project, as long as the other $40 million in pledged funds come through as promised.
Museum backers claim a majority of House members also have indicated support but say they do not yet have the support of a majority of Republican House members. Since Republicans are the dominant party, with 72 of 101 votes, museum backers say they are attempting to obtain the support of at least 36 House Republicans. They believe that would get them a vote on the House floor. The House’s 29 Democrats have announced their unanimous support for the museum’s funding.
Wade said he remains optimistic that the Republican votes can be obtained.
It’s the votes of people like state Rep. Dennis Casey, R-Morrison, that backers are trying to get.
Casey said he was leaning against the project before taking Tuesday’s tour and finished the tour the same way.
“The building is a whole lot bigger than what it looks like,” Casey said. “I thought it was impressive from that aspect.”
Casey said the problem is that the Legislature has provided money to complete the project before, and while that money was spent, the building wasn’t completed. Casey said a majority of his constituents who have talked about the project with him have been against it.
Still, Casey said it’s a tough decision, comparing it to drilling an oil well and trying to decide whether its time to declare a project a dry hole and cut losses or drill another 500 feet in hopes of striking oil.
“When I say I’m undecided, I would say ‘undecided no,’ but I’m open-minded to listen,” he said.
Casey said his constituents are the ones who have the most influence on him, and he will be visiting with them about the vote in coming days.
‘Prospects look good’
Several others who took the tour already have made up their minds. State Rep. Randy McDaniel, R-Edmond, and state Rep. Dan Kirby, R-Tulsa, both said they’re strongly for it.
“The facility is a fantastic example of an entire community trying to come together, and an entire state, to complete a project that has been many years in the making,” McDaniel said. “The prospects look good. There are still a lot of questions, some concerns about the funding and about things that have happened in the past, but the reality is we have an opportunity to complete a wonderful project.”
The museum can be completed in 2017 if the state will provide the $40 million, Wade said.
“When we start selling those admission tickets, you’ll get goosebumps just like I do right now by talking about how significant this is,” Wade said.
Wade said the economic impact will be immense and that hotels, a small convention center, restaurant chains and Indian tribes all want to lease land on 200 surrounding acres of property once the museum is complete.
Wade said it is those leases and ticket sales that will enable a public trust to operate the museum without any additional state money once the museum is finished. Legislation also calls for those revenues to be used to help pay back previous bond issues that provided funds for the project.
“People will be attending from all over the world,” said Gov. Bill Anoatubby, of the Chickasaw Nation. “It was envisioned that this would be the finest Indian cultural center in the whole United States.”