With all the talk about preserving marriage recently it feels kind of gossipy to mention it, but there’s a pretty big divorce unfolding down in Hot Springs.
It’s the Mid-America Science Museum vs. the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, or vice versa — point being, they both want out. A task force appointed by the chair of the commission came up with a plan to accomplish that, though it recommended less money for the museum than the museum had hoped.
It’s a pretty big turnaround for the struggling museum, which has spent the last two months fighting just to stay open after its neighbor, the National Park Community College, offered to buy the $7 million museum complex for $400,000.
The museum has been a bit of a hot potato for its 25-year history: built and run first by the state’s Museum Board, transferred to the Parks and Tourism Department when the Museum Board was abolished in the early 1980s, then leased to Hot Springs’ Advertising and Promotion Commission soon thereafter. Three years ago, the state gave the museum to the ad commission outright.
Throughout most of its history, Mid-America — like many museums — has depended on public money for part of its operating costs. In this case, the money came from a 3-cent hamburger tax in Hot Springs; originally, the museum was to get one-third of the tax, but a change in the ordinance 15 years ago allowed the ad commission to designate whatever funds it thought necessary for the upkeep of the museum, which typically needs about $300,000 per year in addition to revenue from admissions and sales.
Today’s museum, though, is a near-starved shell. Major repairs have gone undone, the carpet has never been replaced, and the full-time staff is down to 14 from the 35 who worked there in the beginning. A hiring freeze imposed by the ad commission has kept Museum Director Glenda Eshenroder from filling several key positions, including a grant writer and an educational director.
Attendance and revenues have been dropping the last few years — although the amount spent on advertising has as well. There’s a fundamental disagreement over why the museum is struggling. Eshenroder and museum supporters blame factors like the lack of a specific marketing plan, while others say the museum is hamstrung by its location several miles outside Hot Springs and by increased competition from newer institutions like the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock.
Ad commission Executive Director Steve Arrison counted himself in the latter camp, and so when the fast-growing community college approached him in early September with an offer to buy the museum and its 20-plus acres of wooded land, he said, he wanted to take them up on it.
“There’s an acceptable amount of loss, but …” said Arrison, who said the old building was not energy efficient and needed too much money for operations and upkeep.
Arrison met with the museum’s staff a couple of days before a hastily called special meeting of the ad commission; at least some staff members understood Arrison to say the sale was a done deal and the museum would be closed by the end of the month, but Arrison said he only told them it was a possibility.
Several dozen museum supporters showed up at the special meeting to demonstrate against the sale, however, and the commissioners voted to reject the offer. Instead, they set up a task force of business people and museum advocates to figure out a way to make the science museum “financially solvent.”
Since then, two groups of museum supporters have waged a grass-roots public relations campaign to keep the museum open, advertising on billboards, in newspapers and on the radio.
Eshenroder initially felt like the task force was stacked against the museum. But after a meeting in late October, she said she felt the tide turning. At that meeting, Eshenroder laid out facts and figures detailing how the museum got into the straits it’s in, and exactly why it hasn’t been able to do more to help itself. (For instance, because the museum is owned and run by a city entity and doesn’t have a separately audited financial statement, it’s not eligible for most grant programs.)
She explained why moving the museum to a more visible location downtown — some had suggested one of the now-empty bathhouses as a new home — was a bad idea: no bus parking, the high cost of moving the exhibits, the fact that the museum’s designation as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution was based on its facility outside the city.
“They seemed to listen to my proposal, and it feels like they’re leaning toward setting us up as a 501(c)3” independent non-profit, Eshenroder said.
Two members of the task force said Monday that is in fact what they’d like to do, and even Arrison said he’d be happy to see that happen. Indeed, though the task force was still meeting at our press time, a spokesman said all the members had agreed on proposing a contract between Advertising and Promotion and an independent nonprofit board, with an annual subsidy from the city of about $300,000, which is less than the $5000,000 museum officials had hoped for.
(After our print publication time, we learned that the task force recommended a declining contribution from A&P starting at $150,000 a year over five years. The payments would drop to $100,000 in the final two years. But the A&P would also match private contributions to the museum up to $150,000 a year, for a possible $300,000 total in the first year. The task force also recommended asking for a two- to three-month extension of a local half-cent sales tax that pays for the Hot Springs Convention Center expansion. That could go to immediate capital needs at the museum.)
As an independent non-profit, the museum might still be owned by the city, but would have its own governing board and separate financial operations. That would open up a host of grant programs to the museum — including a multimillion-dollar effort by the Reynolds Foundation to build a network of half a dozen museums in Arkansas that primarily serve children.
Eshenroder had said before the task force meeting Tuesday that the museum would need about $500,000 a year from the ad commission for the next five years to get on its feet as an independent and make some badly needed improvements to the building. After that, she said, they could review the museum’s financial situation again.
“It’s a little more than we’ve been getting, but it’s their responsibility to repair some of the things that haven’t been fixed,” she said.
She wasn’t available for comment on the task force’s work Tuesday. The task force recommends that changes be made by May 1, otherwise the building be sold to the community college.
Now the ad commission must vote to accept or reject the task force proposal. Which means there’s still the possibility the museum could close, although that option appears to be all but off the table.
Says Winston Wolfe, a staunch museum supporter and member of the task force: “I feel confident about it, that the museum will remain there, where it’s at now.”
And many involved seem to agree that as heated and uncomfortable and even depressing as the last couple of months have been, the process of shining an independent light on the museum and its struggles is the best thing that could have happened.
“It’s a terrible way to go about doing it,” Wolfe said, “but a lot of positive things are going to come out of this.”