Maybe it’s because the weather has been so lousy.
Maybe it’s the recession that never ends.
Or maybe it was Russell Investments toying with Tacoma and Boeing toying with the state as though either hadn’t already made up their minds to move.
But word last week that the folks behind the LeMay Car Museum – excuse me, I mean America’s Car Museum – are once again threatening to abandon Tacoma has left me feeling hacked off. It has become a familiar tactic that has too frequently worked.
Like in 2002 when the city was considering the bad idea of giving away parking lots at the Tacoma Dome to a Bellevue developer for a suburban interchange-style office development. When the car museum felt jilted, its board members told the city that it might just have to look elsewhere – perhaps SEATTLE. The city abandoned the development.
Since then, city facilities, city staff and the city treasury have been opened to the museum. Taxpayers will give two Tacoma Dome parking lots plus other amenities for a total of $25 million. It will cap permit fees. It will continue to let the museum out of obligations to begin construction by certain dates, leading to even more unmet groundbreaking dates.
Yet each time the museum needs something more – usually following another fundraising setback – it trots out the threat. It happened in 2007 when the museum wanted to reverse construction timetables by building secondary elements first and the museum itself second.
And it happened last week when the city released e-mails from museum President and CEO David Madeira. Because the city was insisting that the donated land not be used to secure loans, at least not in a way that would risk losing the land in foreclosure, Madeira said the museum might have to go elsewhere.
Without his terms, “we have no deal and I will advise that we ‘quit’ our efforts with the city and pursue other alternatives,” Madeira wrote to City Manager Eric Anderson.
Madeira sees Anderson as the problem. Perhaps that is because Anderson has insisted that the city bargain not just in the best interests of the museum board but in the best interests of the taxpayers.
Imagine if Madeira got his way. The city land is put up to back new loans and the museum defaults. Suddenly city land is transferred to a private, for-profit entity, allowing some business to charge an arm and a leg to park at Dome events. OK, the city already charges an arm and a leg, but you get the point. If that wasn’t clear in earlier agreements, it must be made clear now.
But more than the details of the negotiations, it was the tone that angered – finally – the members of the City Council.
“Every time they ask for more and more, and every time they do it in the form of an ultimatum,” said Councilman Mike Lonergan.
It is likely the time when big museums could attract big donors has come and gone. Last week a New York Times article detailed struggling museums around the nation, started during the boom with promises of enormous economic development benefits. Now, projects are being delayed or canceled, debt isn’t being repaid and grand feasibility studies are exposed for the fiction they were from the start.
Perhaps an idea put forward last year by Tacoma architect David Boe isn’t as fanciful as it seemed at the time. Boe, now an applicant for one of the open City Council positions, suggested deeding the downtown convention center to LeMay.
The museum easily would attract as much activity as conventions have, and it might even cause someone to rent a hotel room once in awhile.
Absent such a creative solution, the city is left with a partner dominated by out-of-state board members that doesn’t seem able to meet its part of the deal and uses threats to get its way.
No wonder some folks are getting weary of the game.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657