More than four years after Mesa voters approved a new downtown historical museum, and after $600,000-plus in public spending, the museum may now not materialize.
The project would convert a historic former post office into an ultra-modern, interactive experience far different from the stuffy, artifact-crammed historical museums of old.
It was among the amenities offered to voters in 2012 when Mesa sought permission to issue up to $70 million in general-obligation bonds for a wide array of park and cultural projects.
The proposals included purchase of the Buckhorn Baths, a defunct east-side motel that played a big role in the early history of the Cactus League. When the Buckhorn deal fell through, Mesa funneled some of the money into the historical museum project, eventually setting aside $5 million to redo the old federal building at 26 N. Macdonald.
In response to a public records request from the Tribune, Mesa said it has already spent just over $630,000 on design and demolition work for the museum. City spokesman Kevin Christopher said all the money came from the 2012 bond authorization.
But two weeks ago, Mayor John Giles told the Mesa Historical Society that unless it can soon prove an ability to pay the museum’s annual operating costs, the money that had been set aside will be used to pay for other recreation-related projects, such as parks.
Although Giles was out of the country and could not be reached, city Manager Chris Brady told the Tribune that it is his understanding a council committee will hold a hearing within the next couple weeks to determine the society’s ability to cover the museum’s annual operating costs.
“We can’t take on additional operating costs,” he said. “We have been kept waiting and waiting and waiting. The mayor has told the society we’ve run out of time.”
Brady and other city sources also said that with three new members on the City Council, there is a strong sentiment to redirect the rest of the museum funds to projects in members’ districts.
Former city Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh said that before he left Council in mid-January, “I saw no analysis or documents from any city staff containing any conclusion that the MHS would be unable to sustain the operation of its portion of the renovated building.”
“Potential donors to the museum obviously would want to confirm city support for the project prior to making the donations,” he said, expressing concern that the plug might be pulled on a project approved by citizens who voted for the bond issue.
“I do know that with respect to bond issues, the council has a long tradition of ‘promises made, promises kept’ on bond projects,” he said. “If changes or revisions are needed for voter-approved projects, I believe the council must follow a very public process before making any final decisions.”
Lisa Anderson, director of the Mesa Historical Museum, said work stopped months ago. The interior is a hollow shell and none of the planned exterior renovations is in evidence.
“It’s just stalled,” Anderson said. “It’s been stalled since the summer and we’re actually waiting to have a meeting with the city on it.”
“Our board and our organization is still dedicated to working with the city to make sure that museum happens,” Anderson said. “We think it will be one of the crowning jewels of downtown.”
The City Council voted 7-0 in October 2016 to approve the $5 million museum authorization, and Mesa’s published capital improvement plan shows the project scheduled for completion this fiscal year, which ends June 30.
“From the very beginning, the council made it clear the museum had to demonstrate they had operating funds,” Brady said. “We haven’t seen that. … The operating expenses are what really eat our lunch.”
Although Mesa and the museum have a set of bid-ready construction plans, Brady said other projects could use the more than $4 million that remains from that authorization.
Anderson is uneasy about where those discussions could lead.
“There have been talks about people wanting that (building) for other things,” she said, “but that has not been formally told to us yet. … As far as the museum is concerned, we’re excited about the project.”
Vic Linoff, president of the Mesa Preservation Foundation, is so concerned about the building’s future that he considers it endangered as a historical site.
“There’s no risk of it being torn down or demolished, but (it is) endangered to me because of lack of use,” Linoff said.
The building was constructed as a post office in 1937 and enlarged in 1960. The federal government gave it to Mesa in 2002 with the proviso that it be used for cultural or recreational purposes.
The idea of using it as a historical museum emerged from Anderson’s longstanding desire to push the historical society, ironically enough, into the 21st century.
When she took over management of the museum more than a decade ago, its exhibits were housed in a relic-filled, out-of-the-way 1913 schoolhouse in north Mesa’s Lehi neighborhood. Anderson believed that model of historical museum was on its way out.
The museum began making waves in 2007 with an exhibit devoted to “Wallace and Ladmo,” an iconic children’s TV show that aired in the Valley from 1954 to 1989. That was followed by “Play Ball,” a still-growing collection of artifacts reflecting more than a century of professional baseball in the Valley.
In the meantime, the museum closed its public space at the Lehi location and moved its public exhibits to a city building at 51 E. Main St., next to the Mesa Arts Center.
That has never been seen as more than a stopgap, however. The City Council has discussed redeveloping the site and it would have made way for an Arizona State University building had voters approved ASU’s downtown campus in last fall’s election.
Anderson said the museum’s mission will continue even if the federal building project falls through.
“We own the property at Lehi,” she said. “We always will own that. It’s not that we don’t have a home.” Further, she said, the historical society has expanded its mission beyond Mesa to the rest of the Valley. The Play Ball exhibit, for example, is now showing in the Scottsdale Civic Center Library.
But Anderson said Mesa residents have a right to expect the federal building will be converted as promised.
“The council has voted not once but several times to support this museum,” she said. “We want to make sure they keep their obligation.”