Okla. lawmakers consider next move for museum

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Eager to showcase Oklahoma's unique Native American heritage, lawmakers more than a decade ago launched an ambitious plan to erect a Smithsonian-quality museum along the banks of the Oklahoma River.

But project officials, frustrated with construction delays and cost overruns, announced this week that the multimillion-dollar thorn in the state's side will be shelved at the end of the month.

"I think it was a mistake for the state to even go down that road," said state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City. "That said, we've got an extraordinary mound of dirt and steel beams sticking out of the ground, and we've got to decide what to do with it.

"We can't just let it erode into the river," he said.

The total price tag for the project is already up to $91 million, with more than $63 million coming from three separate bond proposals that passed the Legislature. The rest of the money is from private donors, Oklahoma City and federal stimulus funds.

Museum officials say they need an additional $80 million to finish the project and are lobbying lawmakers for half that amount — $40 million — to match private donations that have been pledged contingent upon the state support.

That's a tough sell in the Republican-controlled Legislature, where many are loudly decrying more state spending. Gov. Mary Fallin and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman both have said they support a bond issue to complete the project. However, some legislators are completely opposed to the concept of state bond issues while others think enough has been spent on the project already.

"I'm not opposed to the project by any means. I think it will be a great project for Oklahoma City, but for state taxpayers to continue to dump money into this thing, I don't think it's fair," said state Sen. Cliff Aldridge, R-Midwest City. "At some point you've got to draw a line in the sand, and I think we're at that point."

Aldridge said he will push for legislation that transfers ownership of the project and its oversight to the city, but he acknowledged House and Senate leadership likely will try another bond issue next year after the elections.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett didn't completely discount the idea of taking over the project, but said the next move must be decided by lawmakers.

"I think the ball is in the state's hands. They need to decide what they want to do with it," Cornett said. "I don't think it would be appropriate for the ideas to start coming from us. At some point, I will be more proactive, but at this point, I'm trying to let them figure out what's next."

The Oklahoma City Council agreed earlier this year to put an additional $9 million into the project, but Cornett said that money was contingent on lawmakers approving a bond issue this year. He said he's not sure how the council would vote a second time.

"We'd have to be re-inspired," he said.

Developers have said the museum would house collections from the more than 30 federally recognized Oklahoma-based tribes, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington and other tribal museums.

Several Oklahoma tribes are among those who have donated money to match a $40 million state bond issue, and some tribal officials remain optimistic the project will be completed.

"Even in light of recent developments, we know there are many who continue to support completion of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum," Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby said in a statement. "We plan to continue working to help make this dream a reality."

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said with Native American references on the flag, seal, place names and even car tags, the influence of American Indians is almost impossible to ignore in Oklahoma.

"Those references celebrate the non-native view of our people, so it is particularly disappointing that the efforts to build a cultural center to celebrate our rich Native culture, history and traditions have fallen short," he said. "This is a project that could potentially be a boon to the state's tourism and hospitality industries and I would hope that given the current economic downturn, Oklahoma would take advantage of any opportunity to bring more dollars into Oklahoma."

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