Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 28, 2014

New Palo Alto museum faces funding gap

City Council considers contributing funds toward Palo Alto History Museum

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto's history buffs and high-tech visionaries have no shortage of plans, dreams and ambitions when it comes to building a museum celebrating the city's rich history of innovation.

They do, however, have a shortage of cash — a big problem that has stymied the effort for several years and is now stumping city officials.

On Monday, March 24, the museum's board of directors and dozens of project supporters came to City Hall to ask their elected leaders for help in addressing this point. Rich Green, president of the Palo Alto History Museum board of directors, updated the City Council on the long-planned project and the board's vision for building an "astonishing museum" for what he called an "astonishing city." The organization, he said, now has a revamped board of directors, a lineup of high-profile advisers, a list of potential donors and a historic building at a prime downtown location that could be rehabilitated to house the new facility.

The Palo Alto History Museum, which has been in the planning stages for more than six years, will see its lease on the city-owned Roth Building at 300 Homer Ave. expire this summer. The city, which purchased the building in 2000, will have the option before then to extend the lease and give the museum's board of directors more time to firm up its fundraising plan. While the lease extension looks highly likely, the City Council's willingness to foot a significant chunk of the project bill is nowhere near as certain.

During a Monday night discussion, council members expressed a mix of hopes, anxieties and frustrations with the project, which is looking to bridge a $2.4-million gap in restoring the dilapidated Roth Building. Rich Green, board chair of the Palo Alto History Museum, said the restoration has a price tag of about $7.2 million. He said the museum has about $4.2 million in funding available, including $2.5 million in pledges in hand and $400,000 in gifts already received.

Once the building is restored, the museum would need an investment of between $8 and $12 million for exhibits and programs, Green said.

In his presentation to the council, Green described the history museum as a "museum for the future," a place that would include interactive exhibits, a digital library, a new home for the city's historical archives (now housed at Cubberley Community Center) and tables that update the city's history in real time.

"You can come to museum for cup of coffee, have a chat with friends, push a button and start recording and the recordings will go right into the oral history," Green said. "That'll make it very easy to capture the magic of the city."

The building, he said, is a "pivot point."

"That's kind of what Palo Alto is about. Palo Alto is a startup city. This is going to be a startup museum. We're going to create, we're going to invent and we're going to think big in the museum."

In recent months, the museum's board held a retreat with David Kelley of renowned design company IDEO as well as break-out sessions to consider features for the new museum. The board has also hired a team of consultants with decades of museum experience, including past executives from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Heinz History Center. It has also employed Bob Woods of the firm Stewart Woods and Associates to reach out to philanthropists in the area and declared on Monday that indications from potential donors are "very good." Woods told the council that philanthropists have expressed great interest in supporting the project but could use a "trigger event," such as a gift from the city, to jumpstart the fundraising campaign.

"This is something that possibly can go very quickly," Woods said. "It would go a lot faster if the council joins in in some very, very positive way. It would create a bandwagon effect."

Green asked the council for help, whether through a city grant, a matching grant or a creative arrangement that could include a loan or a gift.

Though the council was generally sympathetic toward the long-planned museum, members had more than a few reservations about forking over a sizable check. Councilwoman Gail Price suggested contributing a mix of loans, gifts and enticements to the donor community. One route could be to offer an $800,000 gift, $800,000 loan and $400,000 matching grant, with the expectation that the museum will get another $400,000 from donors. Councilman Pat Burt advocated limiting the city's contribution to $1 million for rehabilitation of the building, calling such an investment "an easier decision, given that it will remain a city-owned asset."

Councilman Larry Klein was more skeptical. He called the museum's fundraising to date, about $3.5 million in seven years, "frankly not a good record" and said the museum has to "prove itself before the city steps in." While Klein said he might support contributing toward the end of the campaign, to push the project past the finish line, he had significant reservations about issuing a grant at this time.

"I'm very worried about whether the community really wants to have this project," Klein said. "It hasn't shown that so far, and I don't think the council should get out in front of this."

Klein said the city has already invested heavily in the project (including purchasing the Roth Building) and called the prospect of making a large financial contribution "just the reverse of where we ought to be."

Other council members, including Marc Berman and Karen Holman (former executive director of the history museum), were less adverse to contributing, though each stressed the need to balance this effort with the many other infrastructure projects the city is now undertaking. The council plans to place a measure on the November ballot to raise the city's hotel-tax rate by 2 percent to fund a host of projects, including renovation of two fire stations, a downtown parking garage and a host of bike improvements.

Holman said she's not sure how the city can make a contribution "without looking in the context of other numbers and commitments." Berman predicted that once the council supports the museum, "there will probably be other groups that will come out from the community who will want similar support."

"Part of me is a little worried that we might see you again in 18 months for another $2.4 million, which is not feasible," Berman said. "To the extent that the city can get involved and show support and incentivize bigger donors in the community, that's a great thing."

The council didn't take any actions Monday. It expects to revisit the issue in June, when staff will return with financial options for supporting the museum and for extending the lease of the Roth Building. City Manager James Keene said staff could find options for assisting with the project if the council feels strongly about it.

"While it wouldn't be easy, if you really felt at the end that there really was a viable business plan here and a possibility, we can look at some ways at staging some decisions to possibly free up some money," Keene said. "It's not like we have money sitting around that is just looking for some place to be spent."

Watch it online

Watch a virtual walkthrough from 2010 of the proposed renovations for the museum at Palo Alto Online's YouTube page: https://tinyurl.com/qzr3d9s.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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