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City to back museum study

July 13, 1999|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

A majority of Hagerstown City Council members Tuesday promised to grant $37,500 toward a study of a Civil War museum for Hagerstown.

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The three Washington County Commissioners who attended the joint city and county meeting to discuss museum plans said they need more information about the proposal before they can decide whether to spend taxpayers' money.

"Apparently the city's going on blind faith," Commissioner John L. Schnebly said.

Schnebly proposed forming a committee that would evaluate the economic feasibility of the project and look into the people who make up the Antietam Coalition, the nonprofit group that has proposed the museum and would oversee its construction. Schnebly said the committee should complete the review by Aug. 7.

Commissioner William J. Wivell agreed that more information is needed and Commissioner Paul L. Swartz said the commissioners would discuss the museum proposal at their meeting next Tuesday.

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Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook and Commissioner Bert L. Iseminger Jr. did not attend the meeting.

Antietam Coalition members are asking the city and county to help fund a $100,000 study of the museum proposal. The study also would be used as part of an application for affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution.

Smithsonian affiliation would permit a Hagerstown museum to use the Smithsonian name and artifacts from the Smithsonian's collection.

If Smithsonian officials give preliminary approval to the proposal, the Antietam Coalition could need an additional $90,000 from the city and county to repay the Smithsonian for application-related costs and possibly for an independent traffic study. This possible additional funding was not discussed Tuesday.

The city has applied for a $20,000 state grant and that, along with a $5,000 gift from a private foundation, would go toward the $100,000 study. That would leave $75,000 for the city and county to fund.

During the meeting Tuesday, council members Susan Saum-Wicklein, Alfred W. Boyer and J. Wallace McClure said they would vote to grant the coalition $37,500.

"It's a risk," Boyer said.

"We roll the dice all the time and we should roll them on this one." Boyer said, pointing out that the city recently spent $50,000 on a feasibility study for a new baseball stadium.

Councilman William M. Breichner said he would not vote for the grant at this time.

"I'm astounded that you think you can raise $4 million in fees," Breichner said.

Based on preliminary figures, estimated annual operating expenses and debt payments for a museum would be $4 million.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner did not attend the meeting.

An official council vote on the matter is expected July 27.

There was no indication when the commissioners might vote on the request.

Without the financial support of both the city and county, plans for the museum are at a standstill, coalition member Dennis E. Frye said.

Frye and coalition founder Randy Harper, who also attended Tuesday's meeting, said it is important that the city and county act quickly.

They said several other museum projects are in development, and groups involved in those projects also are eying the Smithsonian's Civil War collection, pieces of which might be loaned to a museum with Smithsonian affiliation.

"The first person through the door down there will be the victor," Frye said.

Frye and Harper said that without Smithsonian affiliation the museum would not work.

"Every day that goes by now is a day of potential lost opportunity," Frye said.

Frye previously had called Tuesday's meeting "D-Day," saying it was critical for the city and county to make a decision about financially backing the project.

"On D-Day we took the beach. Now we need to move inland. The next front is the County Commissioners," Frye said after the meeting.

During the meeting Harper gave more specific estimates for the project. He said museum construction could cost between $30 million and $40 million. It would be between 60,000 and 80,000 square feet, and be visited by between 200,000 and 300,000 people annually at first.

The vacant city-owned Baldwin Complex on the first block of West Washington Street had been identified as the preferred location, but Harper said that a location for the museum would go reviewed as part of a study.

"It could be a good location. We haven't done our homework yet," said Harper, who works for a real estate consulting firm in Austin, Texas.

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