News Column

Rare deal at Capitol gives Bell Museum new home on U's St. Paul campus

June 28, 2014

By Bill Salisbury, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

June 28--Tucked away behind a clump of trees on the University of Minnesota'sMinneapolis campus, the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History is easy to miss and short on nearby parking.

With its invaluable collections of more than 4 million Minnesota plant and animal specimens, the 74-year-old museum has inspired generations of students to become interested in science.

But its cramped quarters can hold only 120 students at a time, forcing the museum to turn away thousands of young people every year.

It has room to display just a fraction of its collections, and the building has a leaky roof, cracked walls and mold and water damage in the basement. "It's barely accessible to people with disabilities," museum director Susan Weller said during a tour last week.

Its historic Francis Lee Jacques dioramas -- the three-dimensional life-size scenes of stuffed wildlife in natural settings -- are threatened by heat, humidity and insects.

All those problems should disappear when the museum moves into a new, state-of-the-art home on the U's St. Paul campus in a few years. The new building also will house a 120-seat planetarium, a resource Minnesota has lacked for a dozen years.

U administrators and state lawmakers cut a rare, end-of-session deal last month to fund the $57.5 million project, thanks in large part to the tenacious advocacy of House Capital Investment Committee Chair Alice Hausman, a St. Paul DFLer who waged a 10-year campaign for the facility.

PLANETARIUM ADDED

The new museum will enable Minnesotans to experience nature in ways they haven't imagined, Weller said.

The popular dioramas, valued at more than $10 million, will be displayed in an interactive gallery where visitors can "stop and explore nature," she said. "You'll walk through Minnesota."

It will give visitors access to more of the research conducted at the university and open new research opportunities for U faculty and museum associates.

There also will be more classrooms, laboratories, exhibit spaces and studios for artists to work on nature subjects.

"We will be able to double, if not triple, the number of visitors we serve daily," Weller said.

The Twin Cities are the only major U.S. metropolitan area without a planetarium, a dubious distinction it has held since the one in the former central Minneapolis Public Library was torn down in 2002 and not rebuilt in the new downtown library. The Bell Museum provides a small, portable planetarium that can handle only 10 to 15 students at a time.

The new museum will be situated on 12 acres at the southwest corner of Cleveland and Larpenteur avenues, just off two major highways.

"It will be very accessible to the public, especially those who do not live in the city," Weller said. To alleviate the biggest complaint about the current location, the new site will provide plenty of parking spaces.

Up to 5 acres of the site will be developed, in collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, as an outdoor educational area, something the current facility lacks.

"We want to encourage observing nature and being in nature outdoors," Weller said.

MUSEUM'S ROOTS

The natural history museum is almost as old as the state.

The 1872 Minnesota Legislature passed a law ordering the university's Board of Regents to conduct thorough geological and natural history surveys of the state and "cause proper specimens, skillfully prepared, secured and labeled of all rocks, soils, ores, coals, fossils, cements, building stones, plants, woods, skins, and skeletons of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and other mineral, vegetable, and animal substances and organisms discovered or examined in the course of said surveys, to be preserved for public inspections free of cost, in the University of Minnesota. ..."

The university and the museum's advisory board first started planning to build a new facility in 1995. Hausman said U officials first persuaded her of the need for a new building in 2004.

"It's a treasure that could be damaged or lost," she said. "It's history, and we were not taking care of it."

The U first asked lawmakers to fund the museum in a public works bonding bill in 2008. The DFL-controlled Senate and House approved the request, but Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty used his line-item veto to cut it out of the bill.

Lawmakers approved funding the museum a second time in 2009, and Pawlenty again vetoed it. At the time, he said he did it to reduce state borrowing and "prioritize important state projects."

"It didn't fail because it was a bad project; it failed because a governor made a political decision," Lee Pfannmuller, president-elect of the museum's advisory board, said last week.

After those two setbacks, Hausman said, university administrators decided they had so many other building needs that they had to move on to other projects.

The university's mission is "research, teaching and public engagement," in that order, Weller said. "If it's a choice between investing in a research building or a teaching facility and a museum, the museum must wait."

Moreover, she said, during the Great Recession, cultural institutions across the country "weren't deemed essential" by government officials.

But Hausman didn't give up on the idea.

"I knew it still had to be done," she said. "The board members didn't give up. Private citizens carried the banner. I supported them."

But Pfannmuller, a retired DNR official who headed the advisory board's lobbying campaign, said Hausman was the key. Board members feared -- apparently mistakenly -- that this was the last year she would chair the Capitol Investment Committee, and because no other lawmaker championed the project as strongly as she did, their chances of getting funding in the future would diminish.

(Hausman is serving her third term as Capital Investment chair, and the House has a three-term limit on members chairing a single committee. But that limit applies only to three "consecutive" sessions, and Hausman did not chair the committee during 2011-12, when Republicans had the House majority. So she apparently could head the panel for two more terms, unless Republicans regain control.)

The university did not include the museum in its bonding request this year, and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton didn't propose funding it.

Hausman inserted the project in the House bonding bill, but the Senate didn't authorize it, and it wasn't in the final bonding bill that lawmakers sent to Gov. Mark Dayton.

Then something unusually creative happened -- with help from Hausman's influential friends, Pfannmuller said.

CUTTING THE DEAL

At Hausman's request, House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, contacted U President Eric Kaler and asked if he could find another way to finance the museum. University finance officials devised a plan for the U to borrow the money for the project if the Legislature would agree to pay the debt service on the bonds -- about $3.5 million a year for 25 years.

Two of Hausman's powerful allies found the money. House Ways and Means Committee Chair Lyndon Carlson, a Crystal DFLer who has been a leading advocate for the planetarium, and Senate Finance Committee Chair Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, included the funding in a supplemental appropriation bill that was the last measure the Legislature passed on the final night of the session.

Earlier, Dayton had agreed not to line-item veto the appropriation.

A small army of museum and planetarium supporters waged an intensive lobbying effort.

"We were there constantly," Pfannmuller said.

She singled out two high-profile meteorologists, Mark Seeley from the U and former TV weathercaster Paul Douglas, for raising public awareness of the project with blogs, newspaper opinion columns and numerous phone calls.

"But Alice was just a bulldog, a great bulldog," Pfannmuller said of Hausman. "It couldn't have been done without her."

Rep. Matt Dean, of Dellwood, the Republican lead on the Capital Investment Committee, said it shouldn't have been done that way at all.

"What should have happened if the state of Minnesota was going to finance this, the University of Minnesota should have ranked this project at or near the very top of their request list," he said.

And it should have been included in the bonding bill, which requires a three-fifths supermajority for passage "so that we don't get stuck with boondoggles," said Dean.

He sees it as a circumvention of the bonding process for political reasons.

The project isn't done yet. U bonds will pay for $51.5 million of the cost, with the remaining $6 million coming from private contributions.

Weller said the museum has raised $4 million so far but needs another $2 million in donations before it can break ground for the building next spring, as planned. Construction would be completed in one to two years.

The museum is named after the late James Ford Bell, a General Mills president and board chairman. His grandson, Ford Bell, is president of the American Alliance of Museums and a trustee of the James Ford Bell Foundation that donated $3 million for the new museum.

Ford Bell said he's excited that the new museum will provide learning experiences for tens of thousands of students every year and introduce them to the university.

"We live in a state where our natural history is a big part of our quality of life," he said. "Forests, waters, wildlife -- we can't take those for granted anymore."

Doug Belden contributed to this report. Bill Salisbury can be reached at 651-228-5538. Follow him at twitter.com/bsalisbury.

___

(c)2014 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

Visit the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) at www.twincities.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel



Source: Saint Paul Pioneer Press (MN)


Story Tools






HispanicBusiness.com Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters