SUNDAY EDITION | Kentucky spending millions of transportation dollars on small-town museums
GUTHRIE, Ky. (WDRB) – Renovations are nearly complete on the old Jenkins department store in this city of 1,440 people on the Tennessee border.
An hour’s drive west, work is underway to transform a former church and senior citizens center in Cadiz, population 2,630.
The buildings are among a handful of projects in small Kentucky cities set to become transportation museums, using money included in federal highway bills for activities other than roads and bridges. Local officials say the museums will aid tourism, economic development and downtown revitalization in mostly rural communities.
Congress eliminated museum funding three years ago after critics in Washington singled it as an example of a national transportation policy fraught with waste. But since then, Kentucky has directed more than $2.2 million to museum projects by tapping previously unspent funds, according to documents obtained under the state’s open records law.
“Old money follows old rules, new money follows new rules,” explained Don Pasley, commissioner of Kentucky’s department of rural and municipal aid.
The change in federal transportation policy doesn’t make the Kentucky projects bad investments, said state Rep. Martha Jane King, whose district includes Guthrie and Russellville, a city of 7,000 where an old train depot would become a museum.
“One man’s pork’s another man’s bacon,” said King, a Democrat. “One might say, ‘Well, you know, we do need to take care of the sidewalks and then do this.’ And I know there are a lot of people that say it’s a wasted endeavor to put money into that.”
But, she added: “Since this money came down the pike from D.C. for this, I’m glad that we’re going to make use of it.”
The museum funding comes from a bucket of money in the federal highway bill that can be used for projects such as sidewalks, bicycle racks, historic battlefields and pedestrian bridges.
In Louisville, the funds have helped renovate the former U.S. Marine hospital in Portland, build a trail at Farnsley-Moremen Landing and restore wetlands along the Middle Fork of Beargrass Creek.
It's difficult to know whether the museums were approved at the expense of other eligible projects. The Federal Highway Administration doesn't require state officials to keep applications that are declined, according to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's Office of Legal Affairs.
The museums would include artifacts and exhibits of each city and region's transportation history. Overall, the projects represented about 10 percent of Kentucky’s total “transportation enhancement” spending underway as of last summer, according to the state.
Supporters say the museums will give their communities an economic boost, even drawing visitors from other states. They hope the infusion of federal funds will help revitalize historic downtown areas and, in some cases, give new life to beloved buildings.
But those claims are rarely supported by feasibility or other professional studies, a WDRB News review has found. In Russellville and Springfield, for example, officials said they’re not aware of any analysis done prior to applying for the grants.
Such studies are common before opening museums, experts say.
“Your feasibility study is going to tell you if your community is going to support it,” said Monica Post, a Des Moines, Iowa-based museum consultant.
John Gerner, managing director of Richmond, Va.-based Leisure Business Advisors, partially agreed. In the case of the Kentucky museums, plans ought to focus on aspects like coordinating with other tourist destinations, he said.
“This one museum may not get a visitor to make a special side trip if they’re in the area,” Gerner said. “But if you combine them with other attractions, you may create a critical mass.”
A larger question is whether taxpayer money should help establish museums rather than go towards other needs in rural areas, said Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, which advocates for reduced government spending.
“I would think that most Kentuckians would say that if we’re going to have that type of a museum then that could be done by raising the money in the private sector and the funds that were designated for that should be designated for something of higher priority,” he said.
Stan Humphries, a Kentucky state Senator who oversaw Cadiz’s museum application when he was Trigg County’s judge-executive, said he understands the concerns of those who view the projects as wasteful spending.
But Humphries, a Republican, said his county simply pursued money that was available for museums. And he argues that the Cadiz project will help preserve the region’s heritage.
“I do think we have to maintain our society and show some things along the way that are not always just … asphalt,” he said.
Pasley, a former state lawmaker, noted that the funds used for museums are running out.
“I really don’t expect us to do many more transportation museum projects,” he said.
'A boon for residents'
The largest museum award in the last decade went to Springfield, a central Kentucky city of 2,650 that received a ceremonial $800,000 check last December from Gov. Steve Beshear.
The money, along with donated city-owned land, would help create the Mike Haydon Transportation Museum – named for the late Springfield mayor who was Beshear’s chief of staff when he died in 2012.
“We believe this project will be a boon for residents of Springfield and future visitors,” the governor said at the time.
But months later, the museum no longer seemed certain. New Mayor Deborah Wakefield said in an April interview that the city hadn’t yet appraised the land to ensure it was worth Springfield’s pledge of $200,000. And she had formed a committee to decide whether the museum could proceed.
“We have land for it,” Wakefield said during the spring. “But this is a small town and that’s one thing we have to look at, you know: Can we afford to maintain this museum?”
The site planned for its museum – a field behind a police dispatch center -- had no signs of activity last week. Wakefield did not respond to phone and email messages. Economic development officials declined to comment.
Laurie Smith, the city administrator, pointed out that the city has used federal funds to rehabilitate a former opera house and historic walking path.
She said the mayor is “negotiating with state officials,” but did not elaborate. An announcement is expected in the coming weeks, she said.
Asked if the museum announced with such fanfare last year is still planned, she paused.
“I’m not at liberty to say,” she said.
Flooding the market?
Three of the four museums under development are in western Kentucky’s Pennyrile area.
The projects aspire to be regional attractions. Local officials downplay concerns about a cluster of transportation museums in a corner of the state far from larger metro areas; instead they envision the museums being connected.
One model is the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, said Tracy Robinson of Guthrie Partners for Main Street, a nonprofit group that has worked with the city on its transportation museum.
“We all have a story to tell. These towns were built around the railroads. I think each story is unique enough,” she said.
In Guthrie, named for a Louisville & Nashville railroad executive, the story includes trains, stagecoaches and the “Trail of Tears” traveled by Cherokees evicted from their lands by the U.S. government.
Guthrie’s project has been approved for $1.24 million in federal funds since 2007. The museum’s board will oversee operations and intends to ramp up fundraising in addition to a donation it now gets from the city’s tourism commission.
“All those things we’ve been thinking about as we’re writing these grants,” Robinson said. “You can’t just apply for money, take their money and throw it at a building, whether it’s new or reconstruction. You’ve got to plan what you’re going to do with it from that point forward.”
Guthrie officials believe the project will attract visitors. They say they've done traffic counts, and they note the birthplace museum of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Penn Warren about a block away and the city’s proximity to Clarksville, Tenn., and Fort Campbell.
Supporters of the Cadiz museum, which has gotten at least $715,000, also say they expect visitors to the 19th century former church building being renovated. Plans call for an area historical society to staff the museum.
Jason Vincent, executive director of the Pennyrile Area Development District, said he believes the museum projects will help revitalize downtowns. Even though he’s not aware of any feasibility studies, he noted that the region already attracts boaters, anglers and others to Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.
“We’re sitting right here on the lakes. We know tourism,” he said.
Glenda Foster, a member of the Trigg County Historical and Preservation Society, said the Cadiz museum will likely benefit from a new rest area and dog run near an Interstate 24 exit.
“We’re looking forward to having this transportation museum bring in more tourists,” she said. “We have had no museum now for a while and now that we’re getting this going it’s going to be a wonderful, wonderful thing for the community.”
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