American Indian Cultural Center Agreement Reached
On March 15, 2016 an agreement was reached between the City of Oklahoma City and the State of Oklahoma for completion of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum (AICCM). The 173,000-square-foot structure is located along the banks of the Oklahoma River near downtown Oklahoma City. The agreement allows the city to proceed with making the Chickasaw Nation a partner in completing and operating the facility.
March 15 was the deadline set by legislation approved by the Oklahoma Legislature last year to allow the state to borrow an additional $25 million to help complete the construction, which is projected to cost $65 million or more. The Oklahoma City Council accepted the agreement which would complete the construction, have surrounding land returned to the city, and make the city responsible for managing and maintaining the museum once it is open. The city was about to reject the state plan before the Chickasaw Nation came with a proposal to bring $20 million or more in tribal funds to the project. The offer by the Chickasaw Nation includes up to $14 million to cover operating shortfalls in the museum's first seven years.
Construction of the facility came to a halt in 2012 when previously approved bond funding ran out. After several failed attempts to commit more state funds to complete the tourist attraction, the Legislature last year proposed having the city take it over. House Bill 2237 passed the Oklahoma House 58-36 on May 18 and in the Senate 27-17 on May 21. Governor Mary Fallin signed the bill into law. The state has already spent about $90 million on the project, and the legislation authorized the sale of another $25 million in bonds. The measure anticipated $10 million in private contributions as well as $9 million to be committed by the City of Oklahoma City. Following the opening of the Museum, 50 percent of total revenues in excess of $7 million each year would be returned to the state, up to a total of $25 million. Finally, the bill agreed to transfer ownership and authority of the completed Museum and surrounding property to a newly created American Indian Cultural Center Museum Trust Authority, which is then authorized to transfer all Museum property to the City of Oklahoma City within five years after all outstanding bonds have been retired. Supporters said the plan is the best way to finally rid the state of a project originally conceived in 1994.
The Native American Cultural and Educational Authority (NACEA), the state agency created to develop the facility, had been seeking $40 million to match pledges of $40 million in private, tribal and local government support. State debt payments to service bonds authorized prior to 2010 have been running at about $5.3 million per year. This does not include appropriations to NACEA for operations. The state currently appropriates $1.5 million per year to support NACEA's 14-member staff. The agency had plans to expand to as many as 60 employees once construction was complete.
In 2012, Gov. Fallin requested state Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones to conduct an audit of the agency. Jones and his staff completed the audit and issued a report on October 17, 2012. The NACEA cited the audit in their announcement of another push for bond funding. "We are pleased to report that no financial wrongdoings were found." However, if one read the audit report, one may reach a different conclusion. Perhaps to the extent that no fraud or other criminal activity was uncovered in the audit, the claim of no "financial wrongdoings" may be correct. But, the audit placed much of the blame for the funding problems on poor decisions made by the agency.
In his cover letter on the audit report, Jones said: "The Board chose the "Vision Plan,' the most elaborate and expensive of the options provided by the project architects in 2004. Projects on such a grand scale require substantial funding, however, and at no time has the Board's available funding closely approached its projected expenditures." The option chosen by the board was approximately $83 million more than the least costly plan, which is more than their current funding shortfall.
Jones notes that rather than reconsidering their costly decision, the agency continued down the same questionable path. "It is reasonable to expect that funding shortfalls might lead to a reevaluation of the plans by the Board ... The Board has taken the opposite approach, and rather than evaluating less costly options that would still allow construction of a world-class facility, has maintained their vision, with an expectation that taxpayers will foot the bill," said Jones.
Legislative opponents of the AICCM noted that the state passed three previous bond issues, and each time it was promised that no more state money would be needed for the project. A 2008 press release after a $25 million bond issue was approved declared: "The remaining $75 million will come from private sources including American Indian tribes." If the agreement with the city is successful, the goal is to open the AICCM within three years of when construction resumes and no later than July 1, 2020.