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MailTribune.com
  • Harsh financial realities swallowed up natural history museum founders' vision

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  • Mail Tribune file photo
    Amid the worries plaguing Phil Lamb this week ­ and there are many­ is the nagging question of what to do with Bart the iguana.
    Bart, a popular attraction at the Pacific Northwest Museum of NaturalHistory, is among about a dozen snakes, insects, lizards and birds thatcould become casualties of the expected closure of the Ashland museum Sept.1.
    It's not the kind of place you can shut down on a moment's notice.We have certain things on loan. We have staff issues. We also have animalsthat we have to find potential homes for. I'm in the position of asking,`If we have to close, do you want an iguana?' says Lamb, presidentof the three-year-old museum. Officials announced Wednesday that continuingfinancial problems have all but assured its demise.
    The disposition of the animals, the exhibits, the staff, the board ofdirectors, the nonprofit organization and the distinctive building itselfremain uncertain as officials hold out slim hope for a last-minute infusionof $500,000 to $700,000 to keep the doors open.
    How did the museum, a critically-acclaimed yet financially flawed touristattraction, get into such a dilemma?
    The answer, say critics and fans alike, can be traced to the originalfounders, Ralph Wehinger and Ron Lamb, two men with a shared dream whosedrive clouded more practical concerns. Separately and together, the pairwere able to persuade powerful funders ­ a U.S. senator, a state panel,private donors ­ to support their vision of environmental educationwith millions in public money, even in the face of serious doubts.
    They were smooth talkers, says Debbie Miller, a former presidentand board member of the Friends of Ashland, a group critical of early museumplans. Ron Lamb was so ardent and he had the backing of people intown who felt that the town was really into arts and culture and that thiswas a natural balance.
    Lamb, a biology professor, joined Wehinger, the Eagle Point chiropractorwho originally proposed the $10.7 million project, which eventually receivedat least $2.6 million in federal Interior Department funds courtesy of then-Sen.Mark Hatfield.
    Wehinger simply wanted the project to succeed, says Ken Goddard, directorof the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Forensics Laboratory, which sharesa corner of the Southern Oregon University property. Plus, he had connectionsin Washington and a successful track record after proposing and bringingthe forensics lab to Ashland.
    Ron and Ralph ­ they were visionaries, says Goddard,who remains friends with both men. They were persistent.
    And they were joined by a who's who of Southern Oregon community leaderswho signed on to the project early, says Ken Lindbloom, a Medford businessmanwho is vice-chairman of the state Health, Housing, Educational and CulturalFacilities Authority. The authority granted the museum $3.2 million in statebonds in 1993. It's the debt service to the bonds ­ now totalling some$400,000 a year ­ that has outstripped the museum's ability to pay.Without the debt, the museum could more than meet its $1 million annualoperating expenses.
    There were a lot of names on that original board that would haveled any reasonable person to believe that this would work, Lindbloomsays.
    Even though the museum's bond rating was BBB, nearly the lowest grantedon a scale that tops out at AAA, the panel voted to approve the bonds afterreviewing reports from the museum; from Strand Atkinson Williams & York,the bond underwriter; and from a financial adviser.
    They told us this deal would work, Lindbloom says. Wedidn't think we were snowed up there; we thought the deal looked good.
    Phyllis Bell, president of the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, whowas also on the HHECFA panel, says she had some reservations even then aboutprojected attendance figures and what she regarded as too little investedin marketing efforts. Too much reliance on the Shakespeare halo­ crossover tourists lured by Ashland's festival ­ was another concern.
    But I was assured they had a plan, says Bell, who voted togrant the bonds. It was a good idea, so people wanted to believe init.
    That belief, encouraged by enthusiastic early backers, may have cloudedbetter judgment, even fans of the original organizers agree.
    Says Goddard: Ultimately, visionaries are rarely good at runningthings. ... Good old reality, that's the sad part.
    An early study overestimated attendance the museum could expect. Afterthe July 1994 opening, 97,600 people showed up the first year, well shortof the 180,000 officials budgeted for, and far less than the 400,000 figureRon Lamb and Wehinger originally anticipated.
    Clearly, that first study was flawed, says Mark Dennett,executive vice president of Laurel Communications, the Medford firm thathandles museum marketing.
    Problems dogged daily museum management under Ron Lamb's tenure as well,including clashes with staff and accusations of nepotism. As early as 1993,Robert Scholl, a former development director, suggested that the museumcould default on the debt.
    Though Wehinger left the museum in 1990, and Ron Lamb stepped aside in1995, their influence ­ both positive and negative ­ lingered.
    Proponents point to the thousands of school children who've toured themuseum and to attendance at recent exhibits, such as the Bigfoot displaythere now, as evidence that the museum is fulfilling its educational mission.
    But critics say the bottom line is that the place can't keep its doorsopen. They believe the failure of the museum amounts to a waste of vastamounts of public money.
    When I think about what the Southern Oregon Youth Symphony couldhave done with that money, or what Community Works could have done withthat money ... Scholl says, his voice trailing.
    Adds Debbie Miller: I just think what a shame, what a shame theschools didn't get that money. As a taxpayer, it makes me angry.
    But museum insiders and community members alike say there's no pointin assigning blame now.
    This is obviously a hard time and there are certain people whowill say `I told you so,' says Phil Lamb. A lot of people willkick them when they're down. But it doesn't do any good to do that.
    Don Laws, an Ashland City Council member who was among the first to approvethe museum, characterizes the project as a good idea that didn't work out.
    I believed it had a very good chance of succeeding, he says.It was a good idea to have a museum there for the education aboutthe environment.
    In Laws' view, the original organizers, the financial backers and thecommunity took a gamble ­ and lost.
    It happens, Laws says. As for the community, I thinkwe should have a small memorial service, do a little grieving and move onwith our lives.
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