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Discussion over historical museum's future continues

by CJ Carnacchio

March 21, 2012

Deja vu was in the air at last week's Oxford Village Council meeting as another very lengthy discussion took place regarding the future of the Northeast Oakland Historical Museum.

Although it was not a topic slated to be addressed by council, local developer Chuck Schneider got the ball rolling during public comment with a presentation of what the village could have earned had it sold or leased the 1 N. Washington St. building and how much the municipality has invested in it.

"The village has basically subsidized the historical society to a number that's probably in the half-a-million-dollar range in just rent alone over the last 40 years based on what they could have done with the building in the free marketplace," Schneider said.

Although the museum is operated and staffed by the volunteer-run Northeast Oakland Historical Society (NEOHS), the building itself is owned by the village. This has been the arrangement since 1972.

Based on actual rent received from businesses occupying spaces of comparable size, he estimated the village could have received $236,460 in rent between 2003 and 2012.

"You can do whatever adjusting you want for the other 30 years, but you're looking at a lot of money," Schneider said.

Had the village sold the building to someone in the private sector, Schneider estimated it could have generated $62,585 in property taxes (real, not personal) for it and the township between 2001 and 2010. He based his calculations on the Funky Monkey Toys building (5 N. Washington St.) next door, the main floor of which is "very close" in size to the museum's main floor.

As far as utilities go, the village has been paying for the museum's since council decided to starting doing it via a resolution it passed in June 1997.

Based on the copies of the utility bills he received spanning 2005-11, Schneider calculated the village has spent $38,385 in electric and heating bills over the last 15 years.

He also estimated the village has invested another $25,000 in providing water for the museum building over the last 10 years. He noted the building didn't have a water meter until one was installed in December 2011, so the museum never got a water bill before that.

"We are, as taxpayers, paying to fund a public charity," said Schneider, noting that the historical society has 501 (c) (3) tax exempt status. "They basically have relied on the village to give them free rent and for years, free utilities without really having a plan to become self-sufficient."

"I'm not quite certain why the Village of Oxford has taken the position (that) it's their responsibility to fund the museum," he continued. "It really isn't their responsibility. Their responsibility is to the taxpayers, not to a charitable institution."

Schneider noted how other local nonprofitgroups, such as Orion Arts Center, the Orion Veterans Memorial and the Problem Pregnancy Center in downtown Oxford, all rely on private contributions, not government funding to keep them going.

He said if village taxpayers wish to personally donate their time or money to the museum that's a very different thing from the village government doing it for them.

"It isn't the responsibility of this community and its taxpayers to do that," Schneider said. "They didn't sign up for that."

Schneider also addressed an issue regarding when Oxford Bank deeded 1 N. Washington St. (which served as a bank from 1922-66) over to the village in December 1971. The deed contained a restrictive covenant stating that the "land shall be used for public purposes only" and this condition was to remain in effect for 25 years, then expire, meaning today, the village is free to do whatever it wishes with the building.

"Contrary to public opinion, the museum was not the designated (use); the village designated the museum," Schneider told council. "It wasn't designated under the deed restriction. That was a choice that the village made."

The aforementioned statements by Schneider are incorrect because the legal documents he's using as his sole reference do not tell the whole story, which is a matter of historical record.

Published by the Oxford Leader, a 1976 booklet recounting the history of northeast Oakland County also tells the story of how the historical society and its museum came into existence. The story goes:

"In October of 1971, seventeen interested people met at the Clark Stoddard home in Oxford to again review the need for an historical organization and, most importantly, a museum building to store and exhibit artifacts and memorabilia.

"Robert Dick, Executive Vice President of Oxford Savings Bank, reported that the bank might donate its building on Burdick and Washington if an organization could be set up to assure continuation of an historical museum . . .

"Oxford Savings Bank donated its former bank building to Oxford Village for use as an area historical museum. The bank has subsequently donated monies for operation and building improvement. Robert Dick has continued as an active member of the society and has functioned as liaison between the historical group, the village and the Oxford Savings Bank's Board of Directors."

Looking to the future, Schneider recommended the village ask the voters on the November ballot for permission to sell the museum building.

He advised the village to prepare a property lease and purchase agreement containing a provision stating that whatever entity or business ends up occupying the building must keep it open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and during special village events.

Schneider also recommended the village establish a six-month timetable to lease or sell the museum building with a minimum rent of $1,500 per month, plus all utilities or a sale price of $225,000, subject to the highest bid received.

He noted that the historical society should be given "a first right of refusal to match the highest bid for sale or lease."

"It you're going to be in a building that's owned by the taxpayers, you have to pay a reasonable amount of money for rent," he said. "This is a village asset . . . We don't have the prerogative to say, 'Hey, we think there should be a museum there and that we should give it carte blanche."

Schneider warned council that it was his understanding that if the historical society purchased the building, it would not have to pay property taxes because it's a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit group. "If the museum buys it, you're going to get nothing," he said.

But, according to Tracy Jones, Chief of Equalization for Oakland County, "that's not necessarily a true statement."

"Just because they're 501 (c) (3) doesn't preclude them from paying property taxes," she said. "They have to file for an exemption and they have to meet the guidelines, which is basically, own, occupy and be used for charitable or educational purposes. We've got a whole bunch of exemptions on the books; it just depends on what (role) they think they fulfill. Charities, they have to relieve society of a burden. Educational is obviously educational."

For the historical society and its museum, obtaining a property tax exemption "would depend on what (category) they fit under and if they meet those guidelines," Jones said.

"They would have to apply with us as the assessor," she added. "We have a whole application process. We look at them, we see what they do and if they meet the criteria. If they do, then we'll send them a letter."

Schneider told council it needs to analyze the contribution the museum currently makes to the community and determine whether it's an asset or liability. In order to become an asset, he said it "needs to be open."

"You can't be a functioning entity when you're only open three hours a week," Schneider said. "It doesn't lend itself to being a partner in the downtown, fostering our growth, attracting people, etc."

"We want to be a good partner with the museum, but the bottom-line is they have to make a contribution," Schneider noted. "It doesn't mean anything if you're only open three hours a week. You're not a museum, you're a storage facility . . . It isn't that we don't like the museum, or we're for it or against it. If you're going to make a contribution to the community, you need to contribute you need to be open."

The museum is currently open on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Hours are added on Wednesdays during the summer and the museum is always available for private tours and school field trips if prior arrangements or an appointment is made via phone.

Ron Brock, vice president of the historical society, noted how the museum had 73 visitors during January and February of this year, which are traditionally its slowest months.

And those numbers don't include the six classes of fourth-graders (approximately 150 students) that recently toured the museum.

Robb Leland, owner of ArtCapsule Gallery & Frame (5 S.Washington St.), said these school field trips may be what's best for the historical society, but they don't help the downtown area.

"It's surely easier for the historical society, limited in number (of volunteers) as they are, to schedule a bus tour and usher those tiny attendees, with their $1 bills, in and out of the building at a specific time rather than being open when it's convenient for the public," he said.

Leland noted that "parents, not children, add economic vibrancy to the village" when they take their family to eat or shop downtown, which they could be doing after visiting the museum if it was open more hours.

Back in November 2011, Leland submitted a proposal to the village to move his existing downtown business into the museum building and create a new, nonprofit cultural entity to oversee the museum's main floor. Leland's offered to serve as this entity's director for the first year.

ArtCapsule would lease some space on the main floor for a sales area/gift shop and lease all of the second floor for office space.

A new nonprofit group called the Oakland County Cultural Center would oversee the rest of the museum's main floor through an exhibition subcommittee, which would include members of the historical society.

Once all of the museum's existing artifacts were removed, cataloged and properly stored at an off-site location of the historical society's choosing, the exhibition subcommittee would begin using the main floor to display a mix of art and history exhibits, each with a particular theme, that would change on a monthly basis.

"If you want your offerings to have a very high perceived value, you should offer exclusivity, but not by limiting your hours," he said. "(It can be done) by carefully putting (all the artifacts) away, giving it some thought, and emerging with a series of themed historical exhibits with a limited time engagement."

Leland's idea is to take the historical society's artifacts out of storage and use them as needed in displays based on various themes such as railroads, the Lone Ranger and gravel mining.

"I think it's time Oxford try something new," Leland said. "I think it's time Oxford try something new that requires little risk."

Leland believes the historical society isn't doing a good job right now due not only to its limited hours, but also because "95 percent" of its occupied space contains "permanent exhibits" that "don't change." He described the museum's displays as "stagnant" and not displayed in a manner that's conducive to learning. He said it suffers from a "been there, done that" perception on the part of the public.

Leland noted that the museum's so full, its main floor "barely" has standing room for six to 12 adults.

"Before I would ask my Oxford Village Council to vote for any plan that would allow the historical society to retain control of this prime property through lease or purchase, I would demand an explanation as to how the property is intended to be utilized," he said.

Leland believes it's time for the NEOHS to relinquish control of the museum space.

"I believe it's time for the historical society to gracefully recognize their limitations (in) meeting new expectations and be encouraged to play an important and on-going role establishing dynamic historical exhibits for a new Oakland County Cultural Welcome Center and Museum," he told council.

This center could be open six full days a week to accommodate domestic and international cultural tourism, which is the fastest growing sector in the travel industry.

Brock noted how, contrary to Leland's assertions about the lack of space for visitors, the museum's main floor easily accommodates 25 children, plus two teachers and four adult chaperones on a regular basis.

As for Schneider and Leland's criticisms of the way the historical society runs its museum and the village's role in allowing it to continue such as it is for so many years, Brock said simply, "We are not here to make dollars. We're here to serve the public.

"We're constantly being compared to the (Detroit Institute of Arts). We're not an arts institute; we're a small town museum . . . I don't understand really why there should be such a hassle over the Northeast Oakland Historical Society."

Brock acknowledged that although the society's membership numbers are somewhat dwindling, "there is no gloom or doom" as it looks to the future.

In fact, he was pleased to report the society's in the process of training four new people to give tours at the museum.

Brock believes the historical museum is the best use of the 1 N. Washington St. property. "I don't think we need another art gallery and I don't think we need another coffee shop there," he said.

Longtime resident and former village president Sue Bossardet noted despite Schneider's assertions that the museum is hurting taxpayers, she's never heard any such complaints.

"To my recollection, there's never been any public outcry by the taxpayers about the museum or the amount of money that it's cost the taxpayers," she said. "The building initially cost the taxpayers nothing. That building was given to the taxpayers."

Bossardet said the taxpayers should examine the reasons why Schneider and Leland are professing such concern for them and the museum building.

She acknowledged that she heard "some really good suggestions" during the museum discussion, but she was "off-put by the tenor in which they've been given."

"I'd be in a much more receptive mood if I felt that all this concern for the taxpayers appeared to be a more genuine thing," Bossardet said.

Tom Benner, the village's current president, also made his feelings quite clear.

"I am still in favor of the museum staying where it's at," he said.

Benner indicated that if village residents give permission to sell the museum building and the historical society has the money and inclination to buy it, "that would be my preference."

"It's the taxpayers' building. It was given to the taxpayers and if the taxpayers want to sell it, then I'm in favor of putting it on the ballot to see where it goes."

Benner noted his "personal feeling" on the whole issue is there are people who are "trying to force the museum out of this community or shut it down."