Hurricane museum gives up on lakefront

By The American Press

It comes as sad news to many that the National Hurricane Museum and Science Center won’t be happening after all, at least not on the lakefront.

The American Press reported Friday that Gray Stream, museum board chairman, sent a letter to Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach on May 17 releasing the city from its commitment to reserve land north of the Civic Center for the museum. For those who’ve poured countless hours into the project over 10 years, and the many others who’ve watched from the sidelines with hope, this anticlimactic ending raises a question: What went wrong?

For a while, things seemed to be moving along well. By 2016, the board had secured commitments for $42 million of the estimated $60 million price tag. But it soon became apparent that the museum couldn’t rely on donations to bridge the funding gap. So in April 2016, the board asked taxpayers to — as secretary-treasurer Mark McMurry phrased it at the time — “take us off the hot seat.”

But voters didn’t respond with the support the board had hoped for, rejecting a 10-year, 1.5-mill property tax that would have helped fund the museum’s construction. Part of the reason the tax failed was the timing of the election. It would have been the fourth tax approved by local voters over the last year, and the state had recently increased its sales tax by 1 percent. Voters could have understandably felt taxed out. A much larger issue was the museum board’s unwillingness to scale down.

Renderings showed a grandiose building in the style of the Sydney Opera House. Might the mission of the museum still have been fulfilled if it started out in an existing building with a few exhibits and phased into a larger building, as others have done? If potential contributors could have seen the museum in action on a small scale, might they have been more willing to open their wallets?

In a 2011 interview with the American Press, Stream defended the museum’s decision not to adjust its plans. “There are less ambitious ways to approach this,” he said. “I think there was a decision made at a certain point that just said that in order to fulfill the mission statement, in order to create the impact, in order to really do what needs to be done, it can’t be diluted into just what we feel like we can do easily.”

Maybe the hurricane museum will resurrect one day. Maybe the board will see a reward down the line for holding to its vision. But for now, we’re left with the nagging suspicion that a “less ambitious way” may have been the only way.

Jim Beam

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