, Muskogee, OK

Local News

June 8, 2014

SUNDAY EXTRA: Indian museum just a facade

After $91M, 20 years, interior remains unfinished

OKLAHOMA CITY — In addition to closed-toed shoes, visitors to the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum these days must bring one other thing — an imagination.

A flowing grand staircase, cafe, gift shop, complex Smithsonian-sponsored exhibits, timelines, glass entryways, elevators and restrooms — all are details on drawings. Enthusiastic supporters of the center promise these touches will be “magnificent” — eventually — once Oklahoma legislators find the final $80 million to complete the project.

A plan to finish the center with a public-private funds match fizzled two weeks ago, when lawmakers closed their session for the year without putting up the state’s $40 million share.

The unfinished Cultural Center and Museum ran out of money July 1, 2012. No work has been done since, although taxpayers still spend about $68,000 a month for heating and cooling, mechanical warranties and security personnel.

The center has cost about $91 million so far, with more than two-thirds of that from state coffers. All there is to show for that investment is the shell of a building with working machinery such as the heating and cooling systems in the basement.

Outside the center, on a 300-acre site at the intersection of Interstates 40 and 35, are sweeping views of the Oklahoma City skyline and Oklahoma River. The inside is incomplete and useless without more work.

“If this result is allowed to stand, I believe it would be appropriate for the people of Oklahoma to question our competency,” state Sen. David Holt said in a statement released in May when news broke that the center would not be funded yet again.

“No one should beat their chests over a perceived victory. The state still has an $80 million problem on the Oklahoma River, in our capital city, at the most prominent location in my community,” Holt said. “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.”

Granted, the center’s shell is beautiful and full of symbolic imagery, such as a 100,000-stone entryway, with each stone representing an Indian displaced to Oklahoma by the federal government.

Such details are part of a larger ambition to tell the story of Oklahoma’s 39 tribes and represent their languages, literature, arts and history “in the Heart of Indian Country,” as the center's website promises.

But to see any of this now, a visitor first must get permission to access the site, pass by a barbed-wire fence that surrounds the building and say hello to a gun-toting guard.

The center’s only occupant on a recent afternoon was a small, black-headed bird. The trespasser was quickly and gently evicted once the guard found it sheltering from the heat in a glass alcove inside the fully air-conditioned building.

The center should be teeming with visitors and celebrating its 20th anniversary. That’s how long ago the state cooked up the idea for the project, which was supposed to honor Native American communities while bringing in tourism and state revenue.

But now only occasional VIP visitors and inquisitive birds are allowed on site. The public is kept at bay because of liability concerns over unfinished floors, missing staircases and flimsy, temporary wire railings that are all that prevent a one-story fall to the concrete below.

“Why would you build a structure halfway and just let it sit?” said Shoshana Wasserman, the director of communications and cultural tourism for the center. “Why wouldn’t you finish it and generate revenue?”

Initially the project's funding was intended to come in equal thirds from the federal government, state government and private donors, Wasserman said.

Then, when only some of the $33 million promised by the federal government materialized, the state found itself with an unexpected expense, she said.

About six years elapsed from the project’s launch in 1994 until the first money started flowing in, she said.

Now, with each year, the center is getting more expensive to complete. Wars, inflation and natural disasters have steadily driven up the price of materials. Last year’s devastating EF-5 tornado through Moore also diverted state funding that likely would have gone to the center.

In a May 18 letter to Blake Wade, the head of the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority, the center’s planners estimate it will cost $50.3 million to finish construction. Designing and installing exhibits will cost an additional $22.1 million. The state owes nearly $1.8 million in fees to architects and engineers. An extra $5.7 million is needed for miscellaneous and contingency costs.

The grand total is nearly $80 million.

Finding the money and motivation to finish the center has been difficult at the Capitol, where legislators face a project started by their predecessors.

Some lawmakers and residents have said the project should be finished with private dollars. And the center’s leaders had secured half of that $80 million through donations and pledges, but those were contingent on the state matching those funds.

The future of those contributions is uncertain, project leaders have said, now that the Legislature failed to kick in its half.

In addition, a 2012 state audit found that the center’s organizers selected the most expensive building proposal. The audit urged more legislative oversight.

Wasserman said the audit’s portrayal is inaccurate. She said the most expensive plan of three was selected, but only because it was the only one that met the Legislature's vision of a destination, world-class facility.

“That’s what is challenging to describe to incoming legislators that weren’t there in the beginning day,” she said, noting that most of the legislators who dreamed up the project are no longer in office.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, said in an email that he’s spent hundreds of hours looking for a way to finish the center.

“The Native American Cultural Center is a project we must find a way to complete,” he said.

Janelle Stecklein is the Oklahoma state reporter for CNHI.

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