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Plans for new museum along Catawba River are scrapped

It started with a gift - 400 pristine acres along the Catawba River, steeped in the region's archaeological and natural history.

A decade later, a vision to build a new county museum overlooking the river became the guide star for York County's Culture and Heritage Museums.

Now, in a swift revision of how York County's museums are managed and what their future holds, the museums' new leaders have blotted out the long-held plan for a new museum along the Catawba River.

The Culture and Heritage Commission's seven new members announced at a meeting last week that plans for a new museum are "indefinitely postponed" and the museum will no longer expend resources preparing for it.

If, and when, the county receives title for the property tabbed for the new museum, "the commission will again consider the best use of the property," said commissioner Dennis Getter, who read a resolution the commission unanimously approved.

Getter is one of the new volunteers the York County Council appointed to take a hard look at the museums' finances and management. They replaced a 21-member board that some county and museum leaders said failed to provide adequate oversight.

The decision to halt plans for a new museum immediately followed the elimination of several director positions that commissioners said had been created in preparation for the new museum.

The commission will focus its efforts instead on running the museums' existing facilities: Historic Brattonsville in McConnells, the McCelvey Center in York and the new Main Street Children's Museum and the Museum of York County in Rock Hill.

"In light of our mission statement and our strategic planning," Getter said, "one good thing to say is what you're not going to do."

Toward a river museum

Plans to build a museum have been on hold since 2008, when the project hit a series of obstacles.

Project leaders envisioned the museum on a riverfront portion of 400 acres near Interstate 77 and Sutton Road in Fort Mill. In 1998, Jane Spratt McColl, sister of former U.S. Rep. John Spratt of York, donated land for a new museum and green space to the Culture and Heritage Foundation, which raises money to support the museums.

From that gift grew a vision of a new county museum that would better serve the county, attract visitors from afar, and better convey the region's cultural and natural history. The foundation set aside some of the land for the museum and planned to develop the rest as a way to support the museum project.

The project then lost a major donor, the economy soured, and a development partner left the deal.

But in the decade before, museum staff had crafted a vision, a master plan, for how the new museum - and every aspect of the existing Museum of York County - would look from then on.

It's a blueprint for exhibitions, collections, and everything the museum does and will do, said Owen Glendening, who directed the project creating the 100-page document.

It's like the "hymnal" from which every museum staffer reads, he said.

The master plan "culminates a decade of work by the Culture and Heritage Museums to create a new kind of museum experience," wrote executive director Van Shields in the document's 2008 preface.

The goal of achieving that vision was ambitious from the start: "We were certain that if we succeeded, our visitors would better understand the past, enrich the present, and transform the future," Shields wrote.

Is new museum possible?

Until recently, museum staff and supporters spoke of the plan for a new museum as more dormant than dead.

Shields has said all the county needed was the "political will" to build a new museum.

Bob Thompson, a former foundation board member, said a new museum would depend on the ability to attract support from outside York County.

"A number of very large angels have to come forward," he said, and the county and commission must be committed to the idea, but the focus isn't there right now.

"Like everyone said in the beginning, York County can't do big things like that."

York County lives in the shadow of the "Tryon Street wave," he said, referring to downtown Charlotte, "where CEOs wave their hands and budgets get created."

For York County to build a new museum, Thompson said, would require thinking bigger than what's at home - an unrealistic goal.

Museum leaders say there is a need for a new museum at some point.

The Museum of Life and the Environment on the Catawba River would have replaced the Museum of York County on Mount Gallant Road - an aging facility with inefficient windows, a leaky roof, a floor plan that limits how many school groups can attend at once, and a bottom level that isn't handicapped accessible, Glendening said.

Earlier this year, county and museum leaders started breaking ties with the Culture and Heritage Foundation, which owns the riverfront land. The foundation had planned to give the property to the county after the museum was built.

The fissure started when the foundation disclosed it paid its former development partner $3.8 million to maintain control of the land.

The foundation and its development arm, Sustainable Development Group, sold 15 of the 400 acres to Carolinas HealthCare Systems - which hopes to build a hospital there - for $2.4 million.

The remaining debt is "north of $1 million," said foundation chairman Bill Easley. The foundation and Sustainable Development Group are in the process of meeting that obligation in land or proceeds from further sales. Easley declined to comment on whether any land deals are in the works.

Some county leaders and former museum employees and commissioners questioned the land deal. County leaders have asked the foundation to allow their books to be independently audited.

The Culture and Heritage Commission's new members were assured by the county attorney that the commission is in no way connected to the land on the river - or the debt owed on it.

"Whatever happens on that property over there, we have no influence, no standing and no involvement," Lee said. "Whatever the foundation does, or did do in the past, our focus is on running this museum."

The foundation plans to continue supporting museum programming as soon as it gets some direction from museum leaders, Easley said.

Focus on the people

Gary Williams, co-founder of Williams & Fudge collection agency in Rock Hill and a member of the foundation, said he is upset over the way the commission and York County leaders have treated museum staff in the transition.

The museum was never about the building, said Williams, whose job it is to oversee the land on the river.

"What made up the museum was the people, not the building," he said.

He spoke highly of Shields, who leaves next month after announcing his resignation Aug. 1.

"Van Shields is an imaginer," he said. "He is a person who imagines what can be, not what is.

"How do you take a dusty old museum with animals in it that's been there for years and turn it into an exciting place?"

Williams, who said he has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the museum foundation over the years, didn't rule out the possibility of a new museum in the future.

Councils and commissions change, he said, and at that point, "all it takes is money."