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Museum murk
As the clock ticks on city permit for National Slavery Museum, fundraising for the facility reaches low ebb

Date published: 3/25/2008

THE U.S. National Slavery Muse- um, one of the highest-profile projects ever proposed in the Fredericksburg area, looks more than ever like an unsafe bet. Various news media, including this one, have chronicled the fundraising difficulties encountered by former Gov. Doug Wilder in his quest to build the facility in the Celebrate Virginia tourism complex. Mr. Wilder, meanwhile, has chronicled little in the way of solid good news.

Museum officials' credibility is pretty well shot, and not just with cynical news people. Local business and government leaders complain they're in the dark. Fredericksburg planning and building staffers have heard nothing, not even tapping, from the museum team since last April. Celebrate Virginia's developer, The Silver Cos.--once the museum's biggest booster--now is doubtful. Silver chieftain Jud Honaker says he wouldn't start site work "without being 100 percent convinced I had the money to pay the bills."

Museum nabobs clearly lack the money to build the planned 290,000-square-foot structure. The museum's last tax return, for 2006, shows that funds raised had dropped 60 percent against the prior year to $383,582. The museum site, donated by Silver, accounted for the great bulk of the museum's $17.7 million in net assets.

Meanwhile, construction costs have doubled to $200 million since the design's unveiling, museum officials recently told The New York Times. Those officials claim to have $50 million in pledges and in-kind donations--what they've been saying since 2005. Collecting those chits may be another matter, though, in this fright-filled economic climate.

Mr. Wilder and Vonita Foster, the museum's executive director, lay the blame for the tepid fundraising at the feet of not only the recent economic downturn but also those of Hurricane Katrina, political sensitivities about the museum's theme, competing efforts by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Mr. Wilder's free-time deficit (he's now serving as Richmond's mayor).

Mr. Wilder & Co. have four months in which to start building the museum. Then its special-use permit, which the city granted in August 2005, will expire. While the grandson of slaves told the Times that a $10 million visitor center will go up this year, museum spokesman Matt Langan had nothing to say to The Free Lance-Star about fundraising to make that happen.

A slavery museum, like a relocated Museum of the Confederacy, could add much to a great American story partly told by the area's battlefields. Indeed, Greater Fredericksburg could become volume one of the nation's history book, a tourist experience stretching from Colonial days until the nation-defining four years of blood and fire. So far, alas, Mr. Wilder has contributed mostly smoke.