Opinion

Rethink new museum

County museum leaders have for years pursued the dream of building a museum at the Catawba River devoted to life and the environment.

The vision has included a $50 million facility that would connect cultural and natural history and tell the story of the relationship between people and place. Located on a picturesque slice of land overlooking the Catawba River, the facility is expected to draw more than 300,000 visitors a year, according to museum leaders.

When asked a few years ago if the scale of the project was right for York County, Van Shields, director of the York County Cultural and Heritage Museums, answered, "Why not?" He pointed to the University of Virginia and the decision to locate it in Charlottesville. The university is there, Shields said, because Thomas Jefferson and others wanted it there.

We love big dreams. But we also embrace realism. And with the news last week that a major donation to the project is in limbo, we think now's a good time for county leaders to reassess whether the proposed Stans Museum of Life and Environment is a realistic dream for York County.

The museum would be built in a section of the 400 acres that Jane Spratt McColl donated in 1998. About 350 acres of that land will be the site of an environmentally friendly community developed by Cherokee Investment Properties. The community will include a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial development.

The community plays a vital role in the museum's development. Revenue generated by the community is expected to be a major source of funding for the new facility.

Another major source of funding was expected to be a $10 million donation from Steven Stans of Atlanta. Stans was the son Maurice Stans, a former secretary of commerce in the Nixon Administration whose collection of stuffed and mounted big-game animals has been housed for decades by the York County museum.

Local fundraisers were supposed to match the Stans pledge 2 to 1 within three years to get the full amount. Since the donation was announced, about $400,000 has been received for the new museum.

But Steven Stans died unexpectedly just a few months after announcing the donation in September. And last week, museum officials told York County Council that the Stans family is reconsidering the $10 million pledge.

"They're still committed to the project and want to make a significant pledge," said Gary Williams, chairman of the Culture & Heritage Commission.

We hope that happens. But museum leaders have been dreaming and working on a big, new museum for nearly 11 years. All the while, the current museum is in a bad location and is poorly designed to meet its mission.

The Culture & Heritage Commission also has other responsibilities, most notably Historic Brattonsville, a 775-acre historic site that includes a Revolutionary War battlefield, and the McCelvey Center in York, a century-old former public school.

Last week, Shields said architects still have to draw the blueprints that will show how much each part of the new museum would cost, what it would cost to run and other details. That will take about 19 months, Shields said.

We don't fault the dream of building a museum that could draw more than 300,000 people to York County annually. And we applaud those who have worked hard to make the dream a reality.

But we're 11 years into the effort. It may be another 19 months before blueprints will be ready. And the largest announced donation so far is in limbo.

With a new county administrator starting soon, we think now's a good time for museum commissioners and the County Council to re-examine whether the Stans Museum of Life and Environment is realistic for York County.

IN SUMMARY

Proponents need to outline what would make new museum in York County a success.

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