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U.S. Marshals Museum opening delayed to 2017

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

The U.S. Marshals Museum, a more than $50 million museum to be built along the banks of the Arkansas River, will still have a September groundbreaking, but the opening of the museum will be delayed one year to 2017.

The delay, confirmed by Marshals Museum President and CEO Jim Dunn, is due to a variety of factors, including securing funding. One of the funding mechanisms the museum had counted on to move the project forward is known as new market tax credits. The credits are available both on a federal and state level. Dunn said the museum had hoped to secure the credits at the federal level.

"We had planned for and hoped to obtain $10 million in new market tax credits to be allocated this year," he said. "We could use it toward the cost. Because of some changes in that program and other factors, we learned that we could really not qualify for the entire $10 million in one year and we should spread out our efforts over two years, and possible three, and (that would) improve our chances for up to $8 million."

The tax credits are administered by certified Community Development Entities (CDEs), which are essentially investors who use the funds for investments in low-income communities. Dunn explained that as the economy has recovered and more businesses are interested in securing the tax credits, it would be more difficult to secure the funding necessary to move forward with the project.

"The bottom line was it would behoove us (to apply for the credits over multiple years) because the likelihood of us getting that amount of money in one year was very slim and because we were not shovel ready," he said. "We just can't be shovel ready this calendar year. Our fundraising has not been to the point we could qualify."

According to Dunn, the museum has "raised a total of just over $14 million," adding that the museum currently has between $9 million and $9.5 million "in cash or pledges receivable."

In order to stand a better chance of being a recipient of the tax credits, he said the staff and supporters of the Marshals Museum would have to ramp up fundraising efforts while using cash on hand to start the ground work following the expected groundbreaking on Sept. 24, 2014.

"We will self-fund the 2014 phase (of construction). In 2015, we will aggressively fundraise. Plans are in 2015, when we've reached necessary fundraising thresholds, then we can hopefully apply (for the tax credits). ... Ideally, we'd like to have $25 million in cash or pledges next year sometime."

He said the museum had the next 12 to 15 months to raise the $25 million needed, adding that "if we can spread it out over two years, we hope we can get (the tax credits)."

But Dunn said it was not only the tax credits that delayed the opening of the museum, but also the construction of the museum itself.

"When we started looking at that and what the architects were telling us about the construction period and the length of time to start actual bricks and mortar, it made sense for us to reevaluate our schedule. Frankly, I had underestimated the complexity of the project and the length of time to get it completed."

The museum, which held a board meeting Tuesday (March 11), continues to move forward with final design for the facility, according to Dunn. He said during the meeting on Tuesday, the board voted to hire exhibit designers at a cost of $2.158 million.

He said the museum had also partnered with members of the Oklahoma-based Native American tribes who are part of the Trail of Tears Committee, which are partnering with the museum to design a memorial to cross-deputized Native Americans who were killed in service to the United States during the period when land west of the Arkansas border at Fort Smith was known as Indian Territory.

"Plans are now underway to get that project designed and built," he said. "It would be a significant addition to the campus and downtown Fort Smith. We are very excited about the cooperation we are getting from the five tribes."

The Five Civilized Tribes refer to the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole nations, according to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture.

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Groundbreaking for the U.S. Marshals Museum, which will include 20,000 square feet of exhibition space and will be located on the riverfront in downtown Fort Smith, is set for Sept. 24, 2014, to coincide with the 225th anniversary of the creation of the service in 1789. The U.S. Marshals Service is the oldest American federal law enforcement agency and was established by President George Washington.

In January 2007, the U.S. Marshals Service selected Fort Smith as the site for the national museum. The cost to build the museum — including exhibit work — is estimated at around $53 million. Although the announcement was made in 2007, formal fundraising activities did not begin until the latter part of 2009.

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