According to Mayor Tom Watson, the City of Owensboro has been trying to help guide the Owensboro Museum of Science & History (OMSH) toward a successful future, only to have the museum reject those ideas over the last couple of years.
This news comes at a pivotal time for the downtown science museum, located at 122 E. 2nd St., as housing consultants with A+ Leadership say they’re interested in converting that space into affordable housing units.
After touring the building, A+ Leadership consultants David Johnson and Fred Reeves, of whom both served as OMSH board members in the past, told commissioners that the 82,000 square feet of space occupied by the museum could, perhaps, better serve the downtown area as affordable housing units that ranged between $800-$1,100 a month for the residents who would choose to live there.
Johnson and Reeves have been in talks with Louisville-based developers who expressed interest in redeveloping OMSH, specifically. Johnson said some questions A+ Leadership planned to ask themselves and the museum board included whether the science museum would be open to relocating, what the future of museums would look like 25 years from now and what would stay and what would go if the museum were to relocate.
But a Jan. 31 meeting between A+ Leadership and the museum’s board of directors and stakeholders to discuss these ideas did not go as planned.
“It focused on moving, or not moving,” Johnson said of the meeting. “They were not interested in moving, as a group. [Chief Executive Officer] Kathy Olsen is a little more open to it.”
Director of Finance and Support Services Angela Hamric used data from the past 11 years to determine the taxpayers’ investment toward the OMSH. According to Hamric, the museum had received $1.772 million from the City of Owensboro.
Another $200,000 went toward new roofing for the museum in 1998, and another $31,000 went toward replacing cast-iron boilers in 2014, she said.
Watson told Johnson and Reeves the City had been fighting an uphill battle with the museum over the last few years. In June 2018, the City of Owensboro offered to lease out the former Bluegrass Museum to the science museum for one dollar over the course of 20 years.
“The City would ensure the building was mechanically sound prior to possession,” Watson said. “We would fund the move and, if we sold the building, the City would provide half a million dollars for the move and upgrades.”
The City also offered to sponsor a kickoff grand opening event for the new space, not to exceed $25,000, Watson said.
The museum rejected this offer, citing a lack of space as the reason.
Watson said he didn’t want to lose the OMSH because he considered it an asset, but expressed concerns about several different aspects of the museum and its board of directors.
“I’m concerned about it. I don’t want to lose it,” Watson said. “But in its current state, it doesn’t fulfill what I think it needs to be. The City offered to help them with a children’s interactive museum on the first floor of the old bluegrass museum, and they didn’t think it fit. We thought it fit.”
Another issue Watson cited was the museum’s board of directors, which he said had lost a lot of good people in recent years.
“In dealing with this since 2018, a lot of good people have left for one reason or another,” he said. “Since 2018, we haven’t had any reciprocative views on how we can help them — mainly because they’re not helping themselves, in my view. It’s gone the other way. If you can’t keep board members and you can’t hold board meetings and you don’t do fundraisers — you’re not any different than any other nonprofit in this community. And we need [the museum] to be successful.”
Watson also made mention of the Wendell Ford Cent on the museum’s second floor, saying the Ford family had chosen in 2013 to become “financially separate” from the rest of the OMSH after becoming very uncomfortable about the management of funds earmarked for the center.
The Ford family raised the money to build the Ford Center, but the OMSH required the family to pay for all its upgrades, repairs, exhibit technology and marketing. Watson said the Ford family became concerned with scheduling issues regarding educational programming in the Ford Center and expressed to the OMSH that they’d donate an additional $5,000 a year in return for priority scheduling and better access, but the museum declined that offer.
In the end, the Ford family decided to pull all educational programming from the Ford Center, though the exhibit was left behind.
Commissioner Pam Smith-Wright volunteered to speak on behalf of the City about these issues with the museum’s board, while A+ Leadership volunteered to facilitate it. Watson said City Manager Nate Pagan would request an updated appraisal of the OMSH property to determine its current value.
Johnson and Reeves said they developed a strategic plan for the museum three years ago, but when Commissioner Jeff Sanford asked if any of their recommendations had been implemented since then, Johnson said he wasn’t sure.
“It sounds to me like there’s been no progress,” Sanford said. “The boat’s sinkin’. That’s just my opinion.”