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History Museum trustees want closer look at property appraisal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 13, 2013 - Trustees of the Missouri History Museum are going to analyze an appraisal of property on Delmar whose purchase has prompted controversy, to determine whether it used all the facts available and to bolster their case that the museum is using its funds properly.

John Roberts, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, told the executive committee of the board Wednesday that he hopes the museum can put the issue behind it and get on with the business of restoring public confidence.

“The less we continue to focus on that,” he said of the property issue, “the better off we are.”

At issue is a tract at 5863 Delmar that the museum bought in 2006, designated to be the site of a community center that was never built. It was purchased from former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. – once a trustee at the museum but not on the board when the deal was completed – for $875,000.

An appraisal commissioned by the Zoo-Museum District, which provides the museum $10 million of its $14 million annual budget, concluded that the property at the time of the sale was worth only $260,000. The appraisal was made public on Tuesday.

Earlier revelations about the property purchase – along with the fact that no appraisal was done at the time, and additional facts about the compensation of museum head Robert Archibald – have led to a drumbeat of criticism and the departure of Archibald late last year.

They also led to a new governance arrangement where trustees are sharing responsibility with commissioners of the museum’s subdistrict of the ZMD. As part of that agreement, no property may be bought by the museum in the future without approval of both the trustees and the commissioners and until an appraisal is conducted.

But while those assurances are designed to improve the museum’s business practice going forward, trustees on the executive committee are not certain that they will satisfy donors and the public at large that the museum is spending its money wisely.

Roberts, who is acting as de facto head of the museum until Archibald’s successor is found, talked at Wednesday’s meeting about “outside forces that try to throw us off course” and what the board can do to help retain and shore up public confidence.

He said communications with the public and with trustees and donors have been  ramped up, and the appraisal will be analyzed to determine its accuracy.

But, as he did in a statement released when the appraisal was made public, Roberts made clear that he does not want the museum to dwell on its findings.

“We need to understand what’s in it and what’s not in it,” he told the executive committee, “so when questions come up, we can answer them.”

Members of the committee appeared to agree with his view, though some pressed for a closer analysis of what the appraisal found.

Trustee Frank Steeves said the difference between the purchase price and the appraisal was “stunning,” and said of the report:

“If it’s in error, we should know that and we should show that. … It would not be responsible for us to let it sit.”

He added that the public in general and the media specifically are not likely to let the issue rest.

“I don’t think it’s going to be let go,” Steeves said. “I think people are going to hang on to it and hang on to it.”

Ray Stranghoener, who was president of the board last year when the controversy erupted, added:

“If we find out whether this latest appraisal was a hatchet job – and I don’t know whether it is – we will have to be able to show that to donors.”

Roberts tried to put the issue in perspective.

“Somebody made a decision based on the best information we had at the time that that was the best purchase price,” he said.

“There was a significant amount of work and study and background that went into this whole thing. … It was not something that happened on the back of an envelope in the middle of the night. That seems to be the perception, but it’s not the reality.”

Plus, he said, people are forgetting that the museum still owns the land, which he said should be viewed positively.

“Forget what we paid for it,” Roberts said. “We have an asset, and that asset has value.”

Besides the public perception of how the museum is spending its money, both private and public, trustees expressed concern over how past and prospective donors would view the issue, and how that would affect giving to cultural institutions in general.

“If some of the corporations in this area are skittish about giving money to the History Museum,” said Yvette Whitehead, “they are going to be hesitant to give to other institutions as well.”

Referring to the group of individual donors who have given to the museum in the past, trustee Bob Fulstone said, “This is the time we need our Friends to be friends.”

In recognition of the fact that donations need to be secured and donors need to be reassured, Roberts said that Archibald, as part of his $270,000 consultant contact for the first six months of the year, would meet with a select group of contributors with whom he has developed personal relationships over the years, to reassure them of the continued value of their donations.

“We don’t need to lose relationships with those people,” Roberts said.

But for others, Steeves said, decisions about giving in the future may have to wait until the museum’s new president is on board.

“We don’t know who’s coming in,” he said. “It has a lot to do with who’s coming next.”

As Roberts put it:

“People don’t give money to an institution. They give money to people they trust and believe will use their money appropriately.”

He said that the second phase of a capital campaign that has raised $11 million so far would be put on hold until new leadership of the museum has come in.

Trustees were also told that a letter recently sent out by some commissioners of the ZMD, threatening to withhold tax revenue from the museum unless changes were made to the way it is governed, did not represent the view of a majority of the eight commissioners of the district.

A letter to the trustees signed by five of the commissioners – Ben Uchitelle, Thomas Campbell, Robert Lowery Sr., Robert Powell and Thelma Cook – said:

“Please be assured that the undersigned majority of the ZMD Board have made no decision, nor have we any intent at this time of withholding tax revenue from the Missouri History Museum. A majority of the ZMD Board believe that the recently adopted governance agreement addresses the majority of issues which have been raised during the past four months regarding governance at the Missouri History Museum.

“We believe that the Missouri History Museum Subdistrict and the Missouri Historical Society are on the right track and should be given adequate time to make the necessary changes to ensure appropriate oversight of the expenditure of taxpayer dollars.”

That letter spoke to what Roberts told the executive committee needs to be its main focus.

“Remember, folks, our objective,” he said. “Keep the bull’s eye in mind. It’s $10 million. We need to get that tax rate approved.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.