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Dialogue continues regarding future of historical museum

by CJ Carnacchio

March 07, 2012

The future is uncertain for the downtown Oxford building that houses the community's past.

Nearly two hours were spent during last week's village council meeting discussing the Northeast Oakland Historical Museum, located at 1 N. Washington St.

Topics ranged from increasing the public's ability to access the museum to potentially utilizing the building as a source of revenue for the cash-strapped village.

"There's a lot of questions that in my mind have to be answered before . . . council asks the taxpayers if they want to sell it or if they want the museum to stay there," said village President Tom Benner.

Although the museum is operated by the Northeast Oakland Historical Society, which is a private, nonprofit group, the building itself is owned by the village. The historical society has leased it from the village since Dec. 29, 1971. While there is no actual monthly rent, the historical museum is supposed to pay for things such as insurance, maintenance and utilities.

Three distinct directions for the museum's future were presented during the meeting.

As can be expected, the historical society made it very clear that it wishes to continue using the building that's housed and displayed its local artifacts since 1972.

Chuck Schneider, who owns numerous downtown properties, wants to see the village either sell the building, so it can be put on the tax roll, or lease it, so it can generate some revenue for the village. In order to sell the building, the village is required by charter to seek voter-approval at the ballot box.

Robb Leland, owner of ArtCapsule Gallery & Frame (5 S. Washington St.), submitted a proposal to move his existing downtown business into the museum building and create a new, nonprofit cultural entity to oversee the rotating mix of art works and historical artifacts he wishes to see exhibited on the museum's main floor.

"I am willing to look at all options whether it be (to) leave it as is, if that's what people want, (or) consider Mr. Leland's proposal or something (else)," said Councilman Tony Albensi. "Should (the village) own that building? I don't know. Should we?"

Although nothing definite regarding the museum building's future was decided, council did vote to forward all the utility bills to the historical society for payment as of January 2012.

Per council resolution, the village had been paying the utility bills since 1997, however, the historical society agreed to take over paying them this year.

As part of its approved motion on the utility bills, council also authorized the village manager to negotiate a new lease with the historical society, have it reviewed by the village attorney and bring it back to council.

However, council made it clear it wants discussions to continue regarding the museum's future. Albensi indicated the intent is to continue the dialogue, but also have a lease ready to go if that's the route council chooses.

The historical society's view

"I suggest to you and recommend to you that we leave that building to the purpose which it serves now and let it be that way for our future generations," said Ron Brock, vice president of the historical society.

Gerald Griffin, president of the historical society, gave the council a status update on the museum. "We are doing very well," said Griffin, noting the museum is planning to celebrate its 40th anniversary this year.

He reported to council that over the last two weeks a total of six fourth-grade classes toured the museum. Between March and May, all the second-graders from the Oxford school district will be visiting the museum.

Although the museum's official hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday, Griffin noted the historical society is always ready and willing to give private tours whenever one is desired, day or evening. All people have to do is call (248) 628-1843 or (248) 628-1140.

Tours can range from two to 25 people, all that's needed is some notice.

The museum does add Wednesday hours during the summer season.

Griffin talked about all the improvements the historical society's made to the museum building. For example, the society paid $15,000 to put a new roof on the building and $9,000 to install a new heating/cooling system. Griffin noted how the historical society is currently in the process of obtaining bids for new awnings because the existing ones are old, worn and in some cases, broken.

The historical society is also getting ready to complete its refurbishment of the antique bank vault door inside the museum.

As far as support, Griffin told the council the historical society has about 50 to 60 members and about $100,000 in its treasury, thanks to members who've passed away and remembered the group in their wills.

The idea of removing all the artifacts housed inside the museum to make way for a new tenant or to accommodate Leland's proposal was not an appealing one to the historical society.

Griffin told council such an undertaking would be "quite a task" and a "very expensive" one at that. He estimated it could take anywhere from 45 days to six months to remove it all and store it someplace else.

He noted how the museum has things like pianos and organs. "You just don't take those out the door," Griffin said. "They have to be removed (piece) by piece."

Brock didn't like the idea of putting everything in storage, away from the public's view.

"If it's stored some place in a building, kids can't see it," he said. "It's better to have it (all) displayed where people can enjoy it."

Schneider's recommendation

"I'm not anti-museum," Schneider said. "I'm happy to have the museum there if it makes a contribution to the community. It makes no contribution now. It's open four hours a week."

Schneider believes the 90-year-old former bank building that houses it is much too valuable to continue being village-owned property that's generates zero revenue, taxes or otherwise, for the municipality.

In Schneider's opinion, the building is worth $200,000 to $250,000 on the market. He estimated approximately $7,000 per year in property tax revenue is being lost because the building is public property that cannot be taxed. "(The historical society is) in a building that is way more expensive than they need to be in," Schneider said.

If the village were to lease the property as opposed to selling it, Schneider believes it could generate between $18,000 and $24,000 annually. "If the museum wants to stay there, pay the market rent," he said. "That's what I'm entitled to as a taxpayer. It's my asset, not theirs. It's the taxpayers' asset."

Schneider said if the village's mission is to "improve the utilization" of its assets, then council must look at its lease with the historical society "in a different light."

"That doesn't mean (the historical society is) bad," he said. "It just means they're in the wrong place."

If the historical society wishes to keep its museum there, Schneider believes the group should buy the building. Pulling a $2,000 wad of cash from his pocket and holding it in the air, Schneider issued a challenge to the historical society and its supporters. "When they get 99 other people (to donate $2,000 each), they got my $2,000," he said. "Here it is right here."

"To me, there's two ways you separate the talkers from the doers," Schneider continued. "Donate your time, so the museum is open more, and donate your money to sustain it into the future. If you're not interested in doing either of those things, then you're not a supporter of the museum, you're a conversationalist."

If the historical society is unable to buy the building, Schneider believes "we should help them find another place."

"I've been looking for them. Not that it's any of my business, but I'm passionate (about) what they're doing," he explained. "We have to work with these people to come up with a plan that works for the community and works for them."

Leland's proposal

"I didn't come here with the wad of cash that my friend Chuck Schneider walked up here with, but what I do have is a vision," Leland told council. "I am for the museum. I want to see the museum building and the historical society not just survive, but thrive."

In his proposal, Leland outlined a plan in which his business would lease some space on the main floor for a sales area/gift shop and the second floor for ArtCapsule's office space.

He also proposed the creation of a new nonprofit group called the Oakland County Cultural Center. It's purpose would be to raise funds for cultural events and groups operating in the Oxford area. Leland offered to serve as the center's director for the first year.

This cultural entity would have an exhibition subcommittee which would include members of the historical society that would take over all operations involving the museum's main floor.

The existing artifacts would be removed from the museum, cataloged and properly stored at a place of the historical society's choosing. The museum's main floor would then be used to exhibit both art and history displays, each with a particular theme, on a rotating monthly basis.

The historical society's artifacts would be taken out of storage and used as needed in displays based on the various themes. Leland suggested the Lone Ranger and railroads as two possible theme exhibits relating to Oxford's history.

"I'm the only person I can think of who's come to the community with a proposal that preserves the museum in perpetuity," Leland said. "The premise of (my) proposal is not to move the museum. It's to keep the museum precisely where it is."

Leland indicated his proposal is designed to "make the museum open and accessible when people want to be there" by having staffing on-site six days a week.

ArtCapsule employees would serve a dual purpose by both manning the sales area/gift shop and serving as security for the items being exhibited inside the museum.

"Folks, the doors are not open (now)," Leland told council. "We've got to open the doors. Anything we could do to open those doors would be good."

He believes the rotating art and historical exhibits would create "excitement" and "the desire for people to walk in and check it out when they want to."

"They don't have to call for an appointment. They're inspired and they walk in," Leland said.

Leland told council it's "great" that people can call and make an appointment to tour the museum, "but that's just not how people work" in today's culture of convenience.

"Value" is the primary thing Leland indicated he's concerned about. But the "value" he's talking about isn't related to property value or tax revenues. Leland explained the "value" he believes his proposal can create would be measured in the number of people visiting the museum and the number of people chatting about it on Facebook and Twitter.

"It's about creating a space where learning is encouraged," he said.

Leland noted his proposal is also about raising funds to support arts and history within the community (including the historical society) and helping the village increase revenues or at least offset the cost of operating that building.

He suggested that council advertise and conduct a public hearing to see what the community thinks and what residents would like to see happen with the museum building.

"Let's not focus on the past," he said. "Let's talk about the future."

Public accessibility

How accessible the museum is to the general public seems to be a matter of opinion.

"I'm telling you folks, there's a lot of people who don't feel so great about (the museum) because . . . they perceive it as being inaccessible," Leland said.

"That building is owned by the public, but it's not open to the public," said Madonna Van Fossen, director of the Downtown Development Authority. "It's open to the public if you walk by and you call (the historical society). How many people in this town actually know that?"

"To me, there is a very thin line between a museum and a storage facility," Schneider said. "If you want to be an asset to the community and you have such strong support, get the volunteers to go there and be there on a regular basis . . . (If) you can't get enough people out of 20,000 people (in the township) to open that museum on a regular basis, then something's wrong."

Brock urged everyone to take a look at the operating hours of other small museums run by historical societies.

"You'd be surprised at the very limited hours that they are open," he said.

Brock explained some are open once a month, while others are only open upon request or by appointment. "There are very, very few that are open everyday," he said. "If they are, they're very, very seasonal."

Council comments

Albensi called Leland's proposal "very intriguing" and indicated that it really needs to be considered as council discusses the museum's future in that building.

On the other hand, Albensi also felt Schneider "makes a very valid point."

"That property is worth a lot of money and that's a lot of (potential) revenue for this village," he said.

Albensi noted how he once made a motion to put the museum building on the ballot and seek village voters' permission to sell it. Council voted down that motion.

"I understand and appreciate why a lot of members of this community don't want to see that building sold. I get that," he said. On the other hand, Albensi believes "government is not in the business to hold assets."

Councilman Dave Bailey failed to see the logic of potentially selling the museum building right now. "Yeah, maybe the property is worth $200,000. Do we really want to sell it at an historic market low point?" he said. "Is that proper stewardship of the assets of the community?"

"I'd rather sell it for $500,000 a couple years from now than $200,000 today."

Benner indicated his main concern is what would happen to the museum and its collection if the building were sold or leased for another purpose. "Where are they going to go? Some back-street alley, small building? Some place where nobody knows where they're at?"

"Before I would vote to move them or take their lease away or not renew their lease, I want to know where they're going to go," Benner noted.