American Indian Cultural Center funding to be debated Monday

Construction on the cultural center stopped in 2012 when state money for the project was exhausted. Since then, supporters of the cultural center have tried to convince legislators the project can be completed if the state approves the $40 million combined with an additional $40 in private donations.

The state’s portion would come from Oklahoma’s Unclaimed Property Fund, which has a balance of about $90 million, according to state Treasurer Ken Miller. Some lawmakers had an earlier idea of using state revenue bonds to finance the cultural center, but that drew criticism from Republicans who said they didn’t want to create more debt.

Senate Bill 1651, co-authored by Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Okahoma City, would create a public trust to manage all museum assets the day the facility opens or by July 1, 2019, whichever comes first. In addition, the measure would prohibit federal funds from being used.

“The public has seen it undone for several years, and they deserve to see it finished,” said Loveless, whose Senate district includes the cultural center at Interstate 40 and Eastern Avenue.

Some criticism has been leveled at the Indian tribes with opponents arguing they should bear the full cost of the cultural center. However, Loveless pointed out that the tribes have pledged $25 million out of the $40 million in private contributions. Loveless said he often reminds critics that the cultural center sits on state land donated by Oklahoma City and the project was initiated by state officials who wanted to tell the collective story of Oklahoma’s 39 tribes.

The property can only be used for the cultural center, park improvements and other commercial development connected to the project. In addition, the deed that conveys ownership from the city to the state prohibits gambling activities, which were a concern some lawmakers have expressed, according to Loveless.

“So, without a doubt, there will be no casino built on this land,” the senator said.

Money talks
Projected sales tax collections of $328 million split between the state and cities in the metro area is bound to calm opponents, Loveless said. Project officials also estimate the economic impact of the cultural center over a 20-year period will hit $3.8 billion.

“We have developers waiting in the wings with plans to build hotels, restaurants and retail on the south side of the (Oklahoma) river,” said Blake Wade, chief executive officer of the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority (NACEA).

NACEA is the state agency responsible for developing the cultural center and museum.

If the Senate approves the measure next week, the bill will make its way to the state House for consideration.
“We didn’t get elected to do the easy things, but it is the right thing to finish this project,” Loveless said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the measure with a 21-3 vote on Feb. 19 before passing it to the full Senate.

“After the meeting, some of the critics on the committee said they’re looking forward to it opening,” Loveless said.

Tourist attraction
The cultural center and museum will be more than a local attraction, said Shoshanna Wasserman, director of communications and cultural tourism for NACEA. Wasserman, a member of the Muscogee Creek tribe, is confident the facility will attract international tourists with a keen interest in the Native American experience.

As the museum touts the 39 Oklahoma tribes, visitors also will be exposed to 12 American Indian language families, cultural materials from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Collection, permanent and changing art galleries, an outdoor cultural park and an interactive discovery center for children.

“You won’t find that many languages traveling through Europe,” she said.

In addition, one section of the cultural center will incorporate a 250-seat multipurpose theater that can be used for film screenings and other events. Visitors will also enjoy three smaller theaters, a museum cafe and programming that will change periodically.

“There are many different strategies to employ to keep people coming back,” Wasserman said. “People think this is just for Indians, but that’s not true. It’s for everyone in Oklahoma and the rest of the world.”

Some of the programming will include annual festivals, lectures, book signings, live music, seasonal celebrations, seminars and symposiums related to American Indian topics, storytelling and hands-on art workshops led by world-renowned American Indian artists.

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