It’s easy to be skeptical about a proposed new museum right next to the Flint Hills Discovery Center. I would advise skeptics to learn more. It’s a very low-risk proposal.
The museum, modeled after one in Paris, would display interactive art in an innovative way. I don’t really want to get too deep into that, because I’m not sure I entirely get it. The Mercury broke the story about the museum proposal last week, and we’ll be digging into it more, probably for quite some time to come.
There are two key concepts to keep in mind that make it attractive, from a taxpayer’s point of view:
The city government would not pay to build it. And the city government would not pay to operate it.
The government’s involvement would amount to committing an already-existing flow of state sales tax dollars to it, and perhaps to provide some land. So there’s no tax increase — it’s just directing those tax dollars to help build a building here, rather than sending those tax dollars into the state treasury.
The public cost would be $20 million or so that the state government would forego. Why would the state do that? Well, it’s part of a program to help build attractions that draw or keep tourists in Kansas. Manhattan used that program to build the Discovery Center; it’s also been used to build projects around the state, including the NASCAR race track in KCK.
The decision-makers will be state officials who make the determination on the project and whether it’s worth the expense to the state. Those decision-makers include the Secretary of Commerce and the Lieutenant Governor, and (unofficially but clearly involved) Gov. Laura Kelly.
Manhattan’s existing use of the program has been successful, paying off $50 million in state money years ahead of time. So there’s credibility.
What about operating the new museum? The idea is for a non-profit entity to raise private donations to pay for the operations. That would distinguish it from the Discovery Center, which has required a local government subsidy from the beginning. The Discovery Center is owned and operated by the city; this new one would be a private entity.
The principals — Bob and Tracey DeBruyn — have a long track record of success and community involvement here, so there’s a real baseline of credibility on that side, too.
I would anticipate relatively easy local government approval of this, since there’s very little downside risk, and there’s a chance it will be a real draw to the community. The more substantive question is whether the state will approve it, but, again, the credibility of the city and the people involved seem likely to make it happen.
If it works, it could draw more visitors here, and make Manhattan a nicer place to live.
If it doesn’t work? Well, then there’s a privately owned building that will be available for sale, and the state treasury will have coughed up $20 million.
Certainly it’s a gamble. But at first glance, it looks like a decent one.