THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
Millage Renewal Needed to Retain Over 150,000 Priceless Artifacts & Two Centuries of Saginaw County History
15th July, 2020 0
Without doubt one of the more important questions on the August 4th Primary ballot centers upon the Castle Museum Millage Proposal, which is a 6-year renewal of the current 0.1997 mil assessment, which is the smallest millage operating request in the County and has not changed since 2000. Unlike the request two years ago that was defeated by voters, this new request is NOT a tax increase and will cost a median homeowner only 79 cents per month.
In addition to Saginaw’s Castle Museum this funding will also support the historical museums in Bridgeport, Chesaning, Frankenmuth and St. Charles, in addition to important historical efforts throughout the entire county.
The reason this request is now on the ballot is because current funding that was last approved back in 2010 expires at the end of this year and these funds account for nearly 85% of the total revenue needed to maintain operations of these important entities, which house over 150,000 priceless and irreplaceable historical artifacts.
In addition to the preservation of these priceless historical artifacts, the Castle Museum of Saginaw County also offers significant historical educational programming free of charge to all the schools throughout Saginaw County, as well as for adults, hosting traveling exhibitions from around the world while building and curating their own fascinating exhibitions unique to Saginaw County’s history.
The most important fact to understand, however, is that if this millage fails to receive voter approval, the Castle Museum along with the smaller museums in Bridgeport, Chesaning and St. Charles would cease to exist, leaving no formal organization to preserve the history of our area for present and future generations.
The 150,000 + artifacts under their care, including those from local Native American tribes recovered through the Museum’s archaeological efforts, will be scattered to the winds and lost forever. Additionally, the Saginaw County Sports Hall of Fame would be required to find a new home along with a storage area for their local memorabilia; and equally important, the Castle Building itself would revert to the care of the County, who will be forced to use taxpayer money to maintain the historic structure under Federal regulations. Consequently, taxpayers would still be paying for upkeep of the building, only without gaining any of the benefits of it being a museum, open and available to educate the public.
Oxford Economics partnered with the American Alliance of Museums to conduct an economic impact study of museums throughout the United States a few years ago. Their findings show that in Michigan, museums have a total financial impact of $871 million. Nearly 15,000 jobs are supported by the museum industry, with over $600 million provided in wages and other income to the state’s residents. In addition, even though many (such as The Castle Museum) operate as non-profits, museums generate in excess of $210 million annually in taxes, and perhaps most importantly 89% of Americans, regardless of political party, believe that museums provide important economic impacts back to their communities.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Jonathan Webb, President & CEO of The Saginaw County Castle Museum to discuss various components of this important millage request in order to derive a clearer understanding about both the significance and application of this funding.
REVIEW: In addition to the Castle Museum, this millage request also includes operating costs for the Historical Society of Bridgeport, Frankenmuth Historical Society, Chesaning Historical Society & St Charles. The millage generates approximately $940,000 annually, so how is this funding apportioned?
Jonathan Webb: Back in 1990 an agreement was struck between the Board of Directors with each of these entities that each of them would receive 10% of the millage collected by The Castle Museum, as this way we can support the efforts of historical preservation county-wide, as opposed to only our efforts here at the Castle Museum. Therefore, we set aside this proportion of the millage funding collected and disperse it back to each of these other entities based upon the property valuations of those entities.
REVIEW: Because this is a renewal and not a request for increased funding, what are the strongest attributes these historical museums offer citizens of the region and beyond?
Webb: I think it’s really important for a region to have some entity recording its history in an unbiased and truthful manner; and to do that requires special considerations. When it comes to preserving our inventory of over 150,000 artifacts, things such as temperature and humidity need to be controlled and the people preserving these artifacts receive special training. If you’re storing something like a 50-year old dress, for example, you don’t simply hang it in a closet. It has to wrapped in a certain kind of paper and placed into a box and stored properly.
Another consideration is managing such a large inventory of historical artifacts. Each item we acquire needs to have detailed information about the artifact entered into our data base, so the proper preservation and documentation of these objects is only one aspect of what we do. We have items that go back to Fort Saginaw, before the City of Saginaw was properly formed that go back to the 1820s.
In terms of archaeology, we have items that are thousands of years old such as various primitive tools, along with a professionally trained archaeologist that goes to sites throughout the county ti dig for items that may have value that help us learn about our history & culture from previous times. Once we did an excavation a few blocks from our location in Downtown Saginaw and came across some incredible items dating back from the Great Fire in 1883 and discovered some incredible artifacts from one family.
REVIEW: If this millage fails to pass taxpayers will still need to pay for the upkeep and maintenance of the historic Castle Building itself, while all of these 150,000+ artifacts will lose their home. How much would you say this collection is worth?
Webb: Regarding our most valuable items it’s impossible to assign a value because these artifacts are irreplaceable and one-of-a-kind, which makes it difficult to do. What I find significant is that each of them relates to a story or a situation that help us understand our own stories and legacy better. We store everything at the former Jacobson’s Building, which takes a huge chunk out of our annual budget. Just the utilities, insurance, maintenance and repairs on a totally separate structure, coupled with the costs of properly tending to this inventory runs about $200,000 annually.
REVIEW: How many visitors does the Castle Museum get per year and how much revenue is raised through admissions?
Webb: I would say we average around 20,000 to 25,000 visitors per year and audience inclusion is one of our top priorities. Education of the county’s children is one of our foremost aims, so we strive to make the Castle Museum free to all children of Saginaw County. Thereby, every child is allowed access, regardless of economic status.
We’re not charging anyone admission during this COVID-19 summer and trying to find a balance. I’d like to offer residents of Saginaw County free admission, but we can’t become a shelter, so to strike a balance we charge a minimal admission of $1.00 per person and 50 cents for children, which is intentional - not only to provide for the community, but because the people of Saginaw County are paying for this through the millage, so we like to keep the admission targeted for people outside of Saginaw County and come up with a way to make it free for Saginaw County residents.
One of the perks of becoming a museum member right now is free admission; and we use the money received from memberships for various projects. We want to have a museum that is accessible to everybody in the county regardless of their economic status, gender, or color; able to welcome and available for everybody to learn about the history of Saginaw. Memberships vary anywhere from $25.00 to $100 per year, as there are different levels; and we average slightly above 500 membership purchases per year.
We just redid our exhibitions and have three new large ones in the basement, one focusing on the origins of Saginaw County. Last year was the 200thanniversary of the Signing of the Treaty that created Saginaw, which went back to when the land became the property of the government and was taken from the indigenous Indian tribes of the region. We cannot deny back at that time we were a very imperialistic nation, so before we staged that exhibition we invited folks from the Sebawaing Center in Mt Pleasant to collaborate and offer advice on setting this exhibit up so we could tell the story in the right way. We presented what happened 200 years ago from two different perspectives and brought a delegation over to do a pipe ceremony at the site of the original signing; and it was heartening because it honored this moment in time without any anger or animosity.
REVIEW: Let’s talk a bit about the Castle Building itself, which in many ways is your greatest historical artifact that we’ve managed to preserve in our region.
Webb: Yes - the building is listed on the Federal Government’s Registry of Historic Places and this 120-year old former post office is an architectural gem in the region, arguably the most unique and beautiful building in the city. Unfortunately, proper upkeep and preservation requires use of original materials, making any large-scale projects very costly. The building is currently in need of renovation to many of the exterior stone blocks, some of which have deteriorated to the point where the “setting pins” between blocks are exposed. This project will cost in excess of $100,000.00, and that simply doesn’t fit in our current budget. Plus the slate roof is worrisome. Nails are deteriorating, similar to what Hoyt Library went through so we are going to get estimates, but it’s nothing we can afford anytime soon. I’m guessing the roof repairs will be in excess of a million dollars, which is an entire year’s budget for us. But we also will be applying for different grants on this project and holding local fundraising efforts as well.
REVIEW: Any final thoughts you would like to share?
Webb:I hope people consider the preservation of their stories and history a worthy endeavor and see the value of protecting their history. I feel we have done an excellent job telling these stories and sharing our collection through our programming and exhibitions; plus we have learned to become more efficient with the resources that we do have. We now have mobile modules that our educators and take into the schools for interactive presentations with youth and children and are always striving to help build a cultural awareness in Saginaw. Let’s face it, it’s difficult to figure out where you want to go if you don’t understand where you’ve been.
All our exhibitions are built in-house now and we have learned to do more with less. For about 20 years now the overall property values have been shrinking, so the percentages of annual revenue coming to us from the millage have also been shrinking; meanwhile, costs have been going up - so as with many organizations and individuals and businesses, we’ve had to figure out how to do more with less.
I strongly urge people to come down and check us out and hope they feel proud enough about preserving their heritage and legacy to support us in this millage renewal request on August 4th.
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THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)