National Civil War Museum wins battle over funding

After an appeal to Dauphin County Commissioners, leaders of the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg not only secured funding from hotel tax revenue, but won future political and financial security.

The commissioners vowed to support the museum and to look for other funding streams to grow the institution. After a long battle, it appears the war was won by a surprising weapon: education.

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse had urged the commissioners to freeze money allocated to the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau until the city could revise an agreement with the agency on how to disperse hotel tax revenue.

Papenfuse said under the agreement between the city and the visitors bureau, reached during the administration of former mayor Stephen Reed, a vast majority of funds dedicated for promoting tourism in Harrisburg are diverted to subsidize the museum.

The mayor said the original vision was that the museum would become self-sustaining and pay rent to the city of Harrisburg, but it continues to pay $1 a year to the city for rent while its fair market rental value is $633,000 annually.

Papenfuse called the museum a “failed experiment” and last week said a marketing report provided by the museum shows it spends most of its funding from hotel tax revenues on salaries and utilities.

Commissioner Mike Pries asked museum CEO Wayne Motts what would happen it the current level of funding provided by the county were to disappear.

“It would severely cripple the museum,” Motts said. “It would severely cripple the museum.”

Motts said the majority of non-profit museums in America receive some sort of government funding. He said receiving a portion of hotel tax revenue was appropriate because the museum helps to put “heads in beds”

“This money is valued when it comes to getting people to come to the National Civil War Museum and to the city,” he said.

Motts and volunteer board members said each of the museum’s 38,000 to 40,000 annual visitors spends an average $111 in the immediate area. They said that figure does not include the 114,000 students who have visited the museum.

Motts added that an annual impact study shows the Civil War Museum produced $5.7 million to the local economy.

Upon recommendations from the county solicitor, each of the commissioners said the museum funds are safe because that 2009 contract is a legally binding document.

Furthermore, they said the contract is protected by way of a 2007 state law that states a tourism organization approved the county must be given a portion of hotel tax revenue.

But what was unforeseen by anyone may reveal the war is over. The National Civil War Museum used a surprise weapon that resulted in victory: education.

Beyond the legalities, economic impact and suspected motivations, museum leaders won over commissioners by talking about the museum’s historic importance as an educational institution.

Motts said graduating seniors only have a 12 percent proficiency in history, and the National Civil War Museum is the only institution showcasing the history of the Capital Region.

“I am totally amazed by the amount of educated people who are totally ignorant of our own history,” commissioner Jeff Haste said.

The Underground Railroad, the Grand Review of 1865 and Camp Curtin – artifacts and lessons dear to the fabric of Harrisburg – proved to be found solely inside the National Civil War Museum.

Haste and the other commissioners felt sorry that more funding to the museum was not provided sooner. They responded by vowing to make sure the museum remains in Harrisburg and continues to be an educational beacon for residents and visitors.

“We have a great history,” Haste said. “For us not to tell the story is actually short-sided on me as a leader and for this region, and I’m not going to do that.”

In the end, Papenfuse only forced commissioners to see value in the museum and in Reed’s vision. In Papenfuse’s eyes, protecting that dream validates the practices used to purchase the artifacts, which the mayor believed were illegal since 2007.

Commissioners said they are open to an alternative spending plan, but as the county solicitor put it, the mayor is going on a “wild goose chase.”

Haste said the museum teaches something bigger than a squabble between city leaders.

“The minute we choose to close the chapter, close the door on our history, I think we’re going to make mistakes,” he said.

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