At a joint meeting this morning, the El Paso County Board of Commissioners presented the Colorado Springs City Council with a preliminary “partnership proposal” aimed at keeping the Pioneers Museum open during 2010.
The proposal contains three “initiatives.”
- The city would continue to manage the museum.
- The city would return ownership of the building and the grounds to the county. The county would assume “ongoing operations and maintenance costs.”
- The county would create a new public park, “Pioneers Park,” encompassing the El Paso County Courthouse and grounds.
Under the proposal, the city and county would create an intergovernmental agreement “outlining the scope of usage by each entity.” The governments would work together with “other stakeholders” to “expand third party funding sources for museum operations.”
The value of the offer was not clear.
“Bare bones” funding for the museum would, according the presentation, require $667,000 annually. No city funding is anticipated for next year, although unspecified private sources (presumably including the Friends of the Pioneers Museum, the El Paso County Bar Association and other donors) are expected to contribute $302,000.
One city source estimated the value of the county’s offer at “about $150,000.”
The proposed agreement also contains an apparently unrelated item, which would require the city “to acknowledge county parking availability and grant credits for future parking expansion.”
This clause, inserted at the suggestion of commissioner Wayne Williams, would require that the city recognize that the recently expanded parking garage would provide sufficient parking for any future expansion of the courthouse.
While praising the county’s willingness to work with the city toward the common goal of keeping the museum open, some council members expressed skepticism about the details of the proposal.
“This is the first I’ve heard of this,” said Vice Mayor Larry Small, “(City) staff had no idea what was in the proposal. I’m not sure that the county is interested in the museum, or the collections – they may just want more office space. And they talk about collaboration – where was that collaboration when the county looted $2.7 million from the road and bridge (fund) and didn’t even tell us what they were doing?”
Other council members were visibly taken aback by the county’s demand that the city transfer the property to the county. Several, including Bernie Herpin, Darryl Glenn and Sean Paige, suggested that city and county staff work together to flesh out the details of a proposal that could then be presented to each elected body.
Council members and commissioners jointly agreed to ask their staffs to do just that.
Commissioner Sallie Clark, who previously served on City Council, said that time is of the essence.
“This does have to be dealt with quickly,” she said. “We both have budget issues looming over us. We can’t just appoint some blue ribbon committee and wait for months.”
The county’s proposal lacked specifics.
Small noted that the county already maintains the grounds of the museum under a city contract, so the offer was of little value.
Commissioner Jim Bensberg said that the county proposal would be funded by the county’s share of money from the Conservation Trust, a state-funded entity that is supported by lottery receipts. It’s unclear whether Conservation Trust funds would be available every year, and whether those funds would be unrestricted.
“We can’t apply for grants for the county unless the county owns the building and the land,” Bensberg said.”It only makes sense for the county to assume responsibility for operation and maintenance costs if the county has ownership.”
After the meeting, Clark and Small exchanged views.
“Sallie, last year you were in such bad shape that you wanted to turn the county parks over to us, and now you want us to hand over the museum and its grounds,” Small said. “Budgets come and go. Next year you might not have any money in the budget for the museum, so then what happens?”
“This is just a preliminary proposal,” Clark replied, “This is just the beginning.”
Commissioner Amy Lathen, citing the Pikes Peak Center and the county fair as examples of positive change through drastic restructuring, said that she would support “opening up” the museum, and even transferring it to a private nonprofit organization.
“That’s exactly what I proposed when we first talked about it,” she said, “(This is) an opportunity to create a new model.”
Councilman Randy Purvis said that it was appropriate to consider the county’s proposal, including the transfer of title.
“I think we’re seeing a visceral and emotional reaction to the change of ownership,” he said.
Another city official, who refused to comment on the record, had a different reaction. “It looks to me, as if the county wants to buy a prime downtown block complete with an historic building for $150K.”