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June 8, 2014

Without funds, Native American center remains just a vision

OKLAHOMA CITY — In addition to closed-toed shoes, someone who visits the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum these days must bring one other thing — an imagination.

A flowing grand staircase, café, gift shop, complex Smithsonian-sponsored exhibits, timelines, glass entryways, elevators and restrooms — all are still details on drawings. Enthusiastic supporters of the center promise these touches will be “magnificent” — eventually — once Oklahoma legislators find the final $80 million to complete the project.

A plan to finish off the center with a public-private match fizzled two weeks ago, when lawmakers closed their session for the year without putting up their $40 million share.

The unfinished Cultural Center and Museum ran out of money July 1, 2012. No work has been done since, though taxpayers still spend about $68,000 a month for heating and cooling, mechanical warranties and security personnel.

The center has cost about $91 million so far, with more than two-thirds of that coming from state coffers. All there is to show for that investment is the shell of a building with working machinery like the heating and cooling systems in the basement.

Outside the center, on a 300-acre site at the intersection of Interstates 40 and 35, are sweeping views of the Oklahoma City skyline and Oklahoma River. The inside is incomplete and useless without more work.

“If this result is allowed to stand, I believe it would be appropriate for the people of Oklahoma to question our competency,” said State Sen. David Holt in a statement released in May when news broke that the center would not be funded yet again.

“No one should beat their chests over a perceived victory. The state still has an $80 million problem on the Oklahoma River, in our capital city, at the most prominent location in my community,” Holt said. “… If this result stands, it will haunt my community for years, and it should haunt the legacy of those in this building who could have done something about it.”

Granted, the center’s shell is beautiful and full of symbolic imagery, such as a 100,000-stone entryway, with each stone representing an Indian displaced to Oklahoma by the federal government.

Such details are part of a larger ambition to tell the story of Oklahoma’s 39 tribes and represent their languages, literature, arts and history “in the Heart of Indian Country,” as the center’s website promises.

But to see any of this now, a visitor first must get special permission to access the site, pass by a barbed-wire fence that surrounds the building and say hello to a gun-toting security guard.

The center’s only occupant on a recent afternoon was a small, black-headed bird. The trespasser was quickly and gently evicted once the security guard found it sheltering from the heat in a glass alcove inside the fully air-conditioned building.

The center instead should be teeming with visitors and celebrating it’s 20th anniversary. That’s how long ago the state first cooked up the idea for the project that was supposed to honor Native American communities while bringing in tourism and state revenue. The project is overseen by a state agency, the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority.

But, two decades later, only occasional VIP visitors and inquisitive birds are allowed on site. The public is kept at bay due to liability concerns over unfinished floors, missing staircases and flimsy, temporary wire railings that are all that prevent a one-story fall to the concrete below.

“Why would you build a structure halfway and just let it sit?” said Shoshana Wasserman, director of communications and cultural tourism for the center. “Why wouldn’t you finish it and generate revenue?

“The whole intent of the project was an economic development project,” she said. “It was so that the world — and I’m talking internationally — would have an interest in Oklahoma and what we have to offer.”

Initially the project’s funding was intended to come in thirds from the federal government, state government and private donors, Wasserman said.

Then, when only a few of the $33 million promised by the federal government materialized, the state found itself with an unexpected expense, she said.

About six years elapsed from the project’s launch in 1994 until the first money started flowing in, she said.

Now, with each passing year, the center is getting more expensive to complete. Wars, inflation and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina have steadily driven up the price of materials. Last year’s devastating EF-5 tornado through Moore also diverted state funding that likely would have gone to the center.

In a May 18 letter to Blake Wade, head of the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority, released by the center upon request, its planners estimate spending $50.3 million to finish construction. Designing and installing exhibits will cost another $22.1 million. The state owes nearly $1.8 million in fees to architects and engineers. Another $5.7 million is needed for miscellaneous and contingency costs.

The grand total is nearly $80 million.

Finding the money and motivation to finish the center has been difficult at the Capitol, where legislators face a project started by their predecessors, back when some of them were just children.

Some lawmakers and residents have said the project should be finished with private dollars. And the center’s leaders had secured half of that $80 million through donations and pledges, but those were contingent on the state matching those funds.

The future of those contributions is uncertain, project leaders have said, now that the Legislature failed to kick in its half.

In addition, a 2012 state audit found the center’s organizers selected the most expensive building proposal. The audit urged more legislative oversight.

Wasserman said the audit’s portrayal is inaccurate. She said the most expensive plan of the three was selected, but only because it was the only one that met the Legislature’s vision of a destination, world-class facility.

“That’s what is challenging to describe to incoming legislators that weren’t there in the beginning day,” she said, noting that most of the legislators who dreamed up the project are no longer in office.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, said in an email that he’s spent hundreds of hours looking for a way to finish the center.

“The Native American Cultural Center is a project we must find a way to complete,” he said.

Hickman noted lawmakers setting this year’s budget faced many money problems. There were cries for additional funding from other agencies, a nearly $200 million shortfall, as well as the need to plan a $120 million project to renovate the state Capitol, which is literally falling apart around them.

“The members had to set budget priorities, just like every Oklahoman, and completing the Native American Cultural Center was not able to be addressed in this tight budget,” he said.

Until that money comes, the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum is not bringing any visitors to Oklahoma City and exists only as a vision.

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