Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2017

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Several cities seek stimulus money for museums


associated press file

A group of girls pass by a mermaid sculpture at Grapeland Water Park in Miami, which was among the projects ridiculed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

The mob in Las Vegas

Benjamin Launch slideshow »

Turn on “This Week with George Stephanopolous” or visit the National Press Club in Washington, and there’s Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky again questioning the use of potential stimulus dollars for “things like mob museums and water slides.”

Part of his reference is to Las Vegas’ plan to convert the old downtown post office building into a museum to showcase the role of organized crime and law enforcement efforts to combat it. Historians talk of its academic and research value while Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman envisions increased downtown tourism.

McConnell, while questioning one niche museum, has made no mention of the proposed Lyric Theatre renovation in Lexington, Ky., which would include an African-American Heritage Museum, performance arts center and community space.

Overhauling the Lyric Theatre, which closed in 1963, has been a city and state priority since 1997 and is seen by community leaders as central to ongoing area redevelopment. Lexington, whose population is half of Las Vegas’, asked for $556 million in federal stimulus money for more than 100 buildings, roads and athletic field projects.

The Lexington requests are among 11,391 “shovel-ready” projects — including repairs to a P.T. Barnum museum — sought by cities nationwide and on a list compiled by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. These projects are not necessarily endorsed by their states, legislatures or congressional delegations.

Las Vegas wants more than $1 billion for nearly 50 projects, including $55 million for the Mob Museum — red meat to congressional Republicans eager to identify potential pork in the Democrats’ stimulus packages.

Las Vegas and Lexington are among dozens of cities nationwide — represented by congressional delegations of both parties — seeking museum funding from a stimulus bill intended to jolt a rapidly receding economy. A Sun survey found that 43 museum projects could benefit from stimulus dollars, totaling $453 million.

The use of government money for museums that focus on crime is not unusual. John Wilkes Booth, who murdered President Abraham Lincoln, is featured in two museums that have benefited from public dollars — Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Md. — as did the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, chronicling the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy.

Mayors argue museums and other cultural attractions are necessary to increase tourism that feeds local economies. Tom Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, recalls Chicago Mayor Richard Daley joking that he’d trade football’s Bears for a Manet exhibit.

“It is a big economic driver,” said Cochran, noting the out-of-towners who pour money into hotels, restaurants and stores. “The Spy Museum in Washington is just as hot as the White House right now.”

Democrats promise that the ultimate stimulus bill will be devoid of earmarks — President Barack Obama told Stephanopolous the Mob Museum isn’t on his priority list — but Republican staffers say they’re closely monitoring how the money would be disbursed.

In particular, Republicans are prepared to pounce on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who said the bill wouldn’t direct funds to the mob museum, if Las Vegas were to use some of its share for the downtown building.

Speaking to the National Press Club recently, McConnell said: “You are inevitably going to have a lot of projects that are not going to pass the smell test in terms of the national emergency we have, which is not to say that those projects may not be worthwhile and maybe ought not to be financed by this city government or that city government. But do we really want to borrow money from our grandchildren?”

So why did McConnell blast the Mob Museum as unsuitable but not the Lyric Theatre? McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said Las Vegas’ project “was an early request that came to our attention” that he “thought might not be stimulative.”

McConnell hasn’t publicly said whether he would support Lexington using stimulus dollars for the Lyric Theatre. All the projects sought by Kentucky cities will “be judged on merit,” Stewart said.

Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonprofit watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense, labeled museums “untraditional infrastructure projects.” Obama has said he wants stimulus dollars devoted to roads and bridge construction and repair and upgrading of the national power grid, as well as some tax cuts.

Among the museum-related requests:

• $80 million for loading docks and other improvements at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

• $70 million toward a 30-acre bayfront park in downtown Miami, which would ultimately be anchored by art and science museums. Officials speculate the project would create 1,400 jobs and improve tourism downtown.

• $35 million for the Museum of the West in Scottsdale, which The Arizona Republic reports “aims to be the meeting place of the Old West and the New West.”

• $20 million toward a civil rights museum on an island off the coast of Miami and within Biscayne Bay, and restorations of island buildings damaged during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

• $4.15 million for two museum-related projects in Bridgeport, Conn., including funding for the interior structural repair to the Barnum Museum, which honors circus magnate P.T. Barnum.

• $4 million to help Baton Rouge create a town square from scratch, wrapped by cultural attractions, including an arts and science museum. A town square, officials say, would boost attendance at the museum and adjacent attractions, and thus improve revenues at area restaurants and hotels.

• $1 million to install an alarm system and improve underground water system at the Kristina Dana Hendrickson Cultural Center, a 101-year-old building in Rialto, Calif. Historical society members there have sought the funding for about 5 years, and it would create 6 jobs.

Texas and Puerto Rico have the most museum projects on the list, with five apiece. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, has secured federal funding for local museum projects in the past, but it’s unclear whether she supports the modest funding sought by her cities. Her spokesman promised an answer, but never delivered.

“Are these projects going to draw more traffic” to the cities, asked Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Are they going to create more jobs? And if they get money, what isn’t getting funded?”

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