The long-awaited El Paso County plan to rescue the Pioneers Museum from closure was presented by county officials to their city counterparts Monday afternoon.
It consisted of a nine-page PowerPoint presentation, which left many questions unanswered.
The county made what appeared to be a non-negotiable demand that the city transfer title to the historic 1903 County Courthouse and the landscaped square block that surrounds it to the county. The city would continue to manage the museum, while the county would assume ongoing “operations and maintenance costs.”
The county, upon assuming ownership, would designate the entire property as “Pioneers Park.” According to county officials, the designation would make the new park eligible for funding from the county’s share of Conservation Trust funding from the state.
Interestingly, the county also included a proviso in the deal which would bar the city from requiring the county to abide by city ordinances that might otherwise require the county to build an additional parking structure if and when the new courthouse is expanded.
If the proposed “partnership agreement” was notably murky, the mutual animosity between the two groups of elected officials was crystal clear.
City officials see the county’s offer as a not-very-subtle power grab. Vice Mayor Larry Small said that county officials, “talk about collaboration, but what about the $2.7 million they looted from the road and bridge fund?”
County officials were equally dismissive of the city. “To be honest,” said one commissioner, “we just think that we can do a better job of running the place. It’s not acceptable that they just close it down.”
The obvious distrust between the two sides doesn’t bode well for the creation of a mutually beneficial partnership.
We believe that the museum is a vital, important and irreplaceable asset to this city. We also believe that title to the property should not be held by either of our quarrelsome local governments, but by an appropriately structured private nonprofit entity.
The museum is supported by the El Paso County Pioneers’ Association, the Pioneers Museum Foundation, 1,000 members of the Friends of the Pioneers Museum and the state and local bar associations.
These organizations could form a substantial, enduring and experienced base from which to build an independent nonprofit which would own the museum. Like any other nonprofit, the members would elect a board of trustees, which would in turn appoint an executive director.
The city and the county would make annual contributions for the maintenance and operations. By doing so, they would recognize their continuing responsibility to preserve and protect the crown jewel of our city’s built environment.
Establishing a nonprofit is difficult during the best of times, and these are among the worst economic times that our city has endured.
But difficult doesn’t mean impossible.
For example, city policies do not allow the museum to host many functions, such as private parties or events sponsored by for-profit entities. There might be more opportunities for sponsorship, partnerships and community engagement generally.
The county seems to think that it can treat its would-be partners at the city as would a bank foreclosing on a feckless debtor, while the city seems to believe that closing the museum is no big deal.
We suggest that our two local governments stop quarreling over title issues and parking ordinances and concentrate solely on keeping the museum open. If they are successful in doing so, they’ll do what governments are supposed to do: serve their constituents.