Funding gap could cause American Indian Cultural Center & Museum construction to stop in six months 

The Oklahoma Legislature " by doing nothing " could have created a very expensive "gap."

Time ran out last month on the Oklahoma legislative session without a vote on $43 million in revenue bonds to continue construction on the American Indian Cultural Center & Museum. And it left those who have been working on building the $170 million facility with a funding gap that will cause construction to stop when current contracts run out as soon as six months from now.

"I pushed hard for the bond legislation this year. I thought we had an agreement to approve it, but things fell apart in the final hours of the legislative session and it died in the Senate," said Gov. Brad Henry in a statement issued to the Gazette. "I thought it was a very strong proposal because it required private funds to be raised to match the state bond commitment, essentially doubling the investment in the museum's construction."

The $43 million in revenue bonds were to be matched by $45 million in private funding. Much of the matching funds would likely have come from tribes. Other sources would include individuals, corporations and foundations.

There are enough funds to continue construction for a few months, said former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, who serves with the AICCM Foundation and on the board of Native American Cultural and Education Authority (NACEA), the state agency building the center.

Humphreys said he was "shocked" when the vote was not taken before the session was over.

"I've heard from some legislators that there is some belief that after these things (current contracts) are completed, they doubt the work will stop," he said. "Well, six or nine months from now, the work will stop."

At that point, the buildings on 250 acres donated by the City of Oklahoma City will be close to complete on the exterior, but not finished on the interiors. Other incomplete work includes exhibits, landscaping and parking, with a completion date projected in 2014.

"We really have kind of a multifaceted fundraising effort," Humphreys said. "But the truth is, until the 'owner' steps up and does their part " no one else is going to."

The "owner" he referred to is the state. About $82 million has been spent so far on design, construction and remediation of the site that was previously an oil field.

Humphreys said the tragedy is that there was plenty of support throughout the state government, including Henry, Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee and Speaker of the House Chris Benge.

He said they had the support of the majority of the state senators, but didn't have the support of the majority of Republican senators in the Senate caucus. Several attempts to reach Coffee were unsuccessful.

State Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, said he believes part of the problem was anti-tribal sentiment he heard from some of the GOP legislators.

"The comments were such that, 'Why do we want to do this for the Indians? Let them spend their casino profits on this thing,'" Coates said. "I just think there's this animosity " that's just my opinion."

Coates, who is also in the construction business, said the project will be losing valuable time if it has to shut down.

"We have the momentum now, and it's difficult to recapture that momentum," he said. "It's so ludicrous. It's very myopic."

Gena Timberman, NACEA executive director, said what the legislators probably aren't aware of is that it will be an expensive proposition to shut down construction, maybe into the millions. Temporary walls and barriers will need to be erected and security put in place for that time period. Construction would have to be geared down, stopped and secured. That is not in the budget, she said.

"It could be a $5-to-$6-million gap," Timberman said. "We will need to identify funding to shut it down."

She said while the multimillion construction project is under way, there is sequencing involved with preparation of the bids and also the construction crews to do a large project. When new funding becomes available and new bids are let, there's no guarantee that construction crews qualified to work on the center will be available immediately if a shutdown must occur. Cost of materials could also rise during that time.

"What we don't want to do is shut down construction," Humphreys said. "It will cost much more that we shouldn't have to spend on this project."

Henry said he recognizes that it was a tough budget year.

"But our economy is recovering, and this bond proposal was a smart way to make a long-term economic impact with a relatively modest, initial investment," he said. "I will continue to explore other methods of financing for the project because I think it would be a great mistake to halt construction and progress at the museum site."

Timberman said the state Legislature created NACEA with the full mission to build AICCM.
"As a state project, it really requires that the state have a complete funding plan," she said. "Now we need a commitment to finish that project."

Bill Anoatubby, governor of the Chickasaw Nation, said in a statement he is disappointed the bond issue was not approved.

"We are pressing on toward our goal of making the American Indian Cultural Center & Museum a reality. We believe this facility is a worthwhile investment in our future," Anoatubby said. "It is virtually impossible to overestimate the positive impact this facility will have for tribes and Oklahoma for many generations."

Henry said the facility will get built one way or another.

"This facility will be a great complement to the ongoing growth in downtown Oklahoma City and the MAPS 3 projects, and it just doesn't make any sense to let the construction site sit idle with weeds growing around it," Henry said.

photos An inside look at the Hall of People at the American Indian Cultural Center & Museum's construction site. Photos/Maria Atkinson

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