By Kristi Eaton
OKLAHOMA CITY — The idea was ambitious and smart: Design a sprawling multimillion-dollar museum in Oklahoma's capital city to pay homage to the state's 39 federally recognized tribes, build it at the intersection of two cross-country interstates, then take in millions of dollars as tourists from around the world flocked to Smithsonian-quality exhibits.
But the reality is far different at the $170 million American Indian Cultural Center and Museum. It's half-built and short of the money needed for completion two decades after the idea was proposed and seven years after the land was blessed by tribes and construction started.
"It is a costly project. I don't think anyone has ever denied that," said Sen. Kyle Loveless, whose district includes the museum site at the intersection of Interstates 35 and 40 near downtown Oklahoma City. Once a self-acknowledged skeptic of the project, Loveless is now one of its biggest supporters.
"To me, it's one of those projects where long-term and short-term, once people see that it's open and when we finally get there, they will appreciate it," he said.
When completed, the cultural center and museum will feature material from each Oklahoma tribe that is recognized by the federal government and items from the the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington and other tribal museums. One study said the museum could generate $3.8 billion in economic activity regionally over the next 20 years.
But whether it will ever be completed the way its supporters envision it is a major issue. Initially, federal, state and private sources would split the costs evenly, but after federal funds dried up, the Native American Cultural and Education Authority, the state agency overseeing the museum project, turned to the state.
At that point $91 million — much of it via state bonds — had been devoted to the project, leaving it $80 million short. Gov. Mary Fallin hired executive director Blake Wade to raise $40 million in private donations and promised $40 million in matching money for the project.
The private donations were raised, but the state Legislature has balked at passing the bill to provide matching funds. Two years ago, the bill failed to pass through the Senate by one vote. In the 2013 session, Wade and Loveless said they were confident they had the necessary votes to pass the bill to secure the $40 million in funding and re-start construction that had stopped July 1, 2012.
Then disaster struck.
An EF5 tornado sliced through Moore, killing more than 20 people during the final week of the legislative session. Supporters of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, which is just 10 miles north of where the May 20 tornado struck, told legislators to focus efforts on tornado recovery.
"Families are hurting. Lives have been lost. Helping out friends, neighbors and families through this hardship takes priority. There is another day to perform our task," Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby, chairman of the Native American Cultural and Education Authority board, said in a statement at the time.
Lawmakers ended up passing several items related to tornado recovery efforts, including a $45 million relief package and tax reforms for victims. It was a move that Loveless and Wade said was the necessary and the right thing to do. But once again, the museum was without money to continue with construction.
A new opening date has been set for 2017, Wade said. Right now, dirt or bare concrete paths wind through the grounds while specially selected stone pieces quarried for the project sit unused. Plywood covers the walkway to a large promontory designed to resemble historic American Indian mounds.
Meanwhile, the state is paying $52,000 a month for security at the site until lawmakers can vote on the $40 million funding bill in February.
That's when, Wade said, the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum faces what could be its last chance to convince the lawmakers of the project's importance.
"I feel this really would be our last opportunity this next session, in my opinion. We cannot continue to pay $52,000 a month for many more years," he said.
Both Wade and Loveless think the third time is the charm, and now Wade is focusing on maintaining contributions from about 150 private donors like Tulsan George Kaiser, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist who donated $1 million, and companies like Devon Energy.
It'll be an uphill battle to convince lawmakers like Sen. Greg Treat, though.
Treat said he wants the cultural center and museum completed like everyone else — just not with any more state money. Treat believes the project could be finished with additional fundraising from private donors.
The Republican senator was one of three lawmakers who asked Fallin to request an audit of the project last year.
The audit found that the board chose the most expensive proposal to build the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, while having only $5 million in funding at the time. It also said lawmakers need to play a greater role in overseeing the project.
Treat said legislators didn't offer the proper oversight of the project, while he found it "troublesome" that the board would select the most expensive options, he said.
Loveless, though, thinks people will realize the project's potential once it's complete.
"It has been a bumpy road, but I definitely think it's going to be worth it," he said.