Three words — “and cultural facilities” — in Bibb County’s sales tax ballot initiative could lead the way for the county to get out of what one commissioner calls “the museum business,” even though the proposal would have the county buying two museums.
The basic idea is to raise a privately run endowment of $50 million to $100 million during the next 20 years to take the place of government subsidies, said Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart. That money could fund institutions as diverse as the Tubman African American Museum, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Douglass Theatre. Hart said such a “museum district” would help tourism in Macon.
“We’d be talking about a state of mind, that (visitors would) be making a destination spot,” Hart said.
Some local museum officials already are working together on projects and marketing. Told the outlines of Hart’s ideas, they said if such an endowment could be assembled, it would work well.
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“It would have a dramatic impact on sustainability,” said Andy Ambrose, executive director of the Tubman.
Suzanne Harper, executive director of the Museum of Arts and Sciences, said very few museums can support themselves only on admissions.
“It takes everything,” she said, mentioning camp fees, special events, school stores, grants, memberships, sponsorships and other revenue sources.
Ambrose said Macon’s museums could draw people from beyond Atlanta, and the museums contribute to the area’s economy.
He hopes to resume construction next year on the Tubman’s new building, which at 49,000 square feet is about five times the size of the current facility.
Bibb commissioners cut the county’s funding for the Tubman and the Museum of Arts and Sciences to $250,000 each next year, down from $314,041 in the current fiscal year that ends at the end of the month.
An endowment that’s large enough could subsidize the museum indefinitely without harming the principal. The challenge would be to get the endowment large enough to generate a subsidy that’s large enough.
Hart said the county’s main proposal isn’t enough on its own. Commissioners have proposed using money from next month’s vote on a special purpose local option sales tax to buy the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, perhaps for about $15 million. Then, according to Hart’s idea, the state would return the money as cash for an endowment, effectively giving away the buildings but taking away a significant state burden. Hart said ownership and management could be transferred to another organization such as NewTown Macon.
The SPLOST measure proposes funding for “recreation and cultural facilities” in Bibb County, as well as “recreation facilities” in Macon. That could allow the county to put money into the halls of fame as well as pursue new parks, particularly in south Bibb County.
The state is seeking proposals for the halls of fame, which some legislators want moved to Atlanta. Georgia legislators cut funding to $386,208 for the music hall and $312,329 for the sports hall in next year’s budget — $200,000 less for each hall than in the current year.
Even at the reduced levels, the two halls of fame, the Tubman and the Museum of Arts and Sciences together will get about $1.2 million in state and county subsidies. That amount of subsidies couldn’t continue by solely relying on the estimated $15 million from a deal with the state.
But can a larger endowment be raised? Ambrose said the Tubman has raised about $5 million over 2 1/2 years to go toward completion of the new museum.
That’s slower than the rate needed to get Hart’s proposed endowment, but a collective effort could raise more money than one museum on its own.
Ambrose and Harper said they’ve heard of teamwork paying dividends in places such as Chattanooga, Tenn., and Charlotte, N.C. Founded in 1958, Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council last year gave $16.5 million in grants to a range of local museums and other organizations.
Government funding remains. The annual report shows payments of $2.9 million from Charlotte and $1.9 million from Mecklenburg County, plus smaller amounts from other governments.
Ambrose said one idea that could create an endowment is a proposed SPLOST for museums and other organizations serving the arts and sciences. A proposal to allow such a sales tax died in the Georgia General Assembly.
Harper said the local museums all worry about funding.
“I think all of the museum directors would like to see some plan that would assist the organizations going forward,” she said. “We all feel like they’re vital institutions and they really contribute to the quality of life, each in its own way, and I don’t think we’d like to see any of them lost.”
Ambrose said a collaborative approach among the museums and local leaders could bring broad benefits. Tourism, he said, is a major part of Macon’s economy, and local museums are working with each other and schools to bring broader benefits.
“There’s something very gratifying about local leaders supporting this fabulous nexus of museums,” he said.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.