OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Mary Fallin signed off Thursday on $25 million in bonds to complete the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, clearing the last major hurdle toward the completion of the long-unfinished project, according to its backers.
Supporters have been pushing for years to complete the project, which sits on the banks of the Oklahoma River in downtown Oklahoma City. Construction of the 173,000-square-foot structure began in 2006, but it has been dormant since 2012 when the project ran out of money and the Republican-controlled Legislature refused to allocate new funds.
"For years, the cultural center has been a potential asset that has gone ignored," Fallin said. "The completed center promises to be an important tourism attraction, an economic boost for the state and for Oklahoma City, and an educational tool to remind Oklahomans and non-Oklahomans alike of the important contributions that Native Americans have made to our history and culture."
Blake Wade, executive director of the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority, the project's governing board, said the last phase of construction could commence in early 2016, once the state has reached an agreement to hand control of the center to Oklahoma City.
"We've already started working with Oklahoma City with their questions," Wade said. "They want to know everything about us, the budget and all that. We're working with them to help make this a reality."
In previous years, lawmakers rejected completion plans that called for the state to issue an additional $40 million in bonds which would be matched by another $40 million from private sources, including tribal governments, Oklahoma corporations and a $9 million pledge from Oklahoma City, to complete the structure.
Wade said the $40 million in private donations is still available and he is working to raise $15 million more to compensate for the reduction in funding authorized by the state.
"No doubt in my mind, we are going to open," Wade said.
Under the new law, city officials have until Jan. 15, 2016, to reach an agreement with the state. If no agreement is reached, the plan will not be put in place and state funds to complete the project will be withdrawn.
City officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But City Manager Jim Couch has said there are a lot of unanswered questions about the museum plan.
The legislation was passed by the state House and Senate in the final week of the legislative session that adjourned on May 22. The state has already spent about $90 million on the project and, although incomplete, was forced to pay almost $7 million a year to maintain the property and make payments on previous construction bonds.
Supporters have said Oklahoma City will benefit from completion of the museum and the proposal's requirement that about 143 acres that surround it would be transferred to the city for economic development, including hotels, restaurants and retail shops. Lease revenue from that development could be used to help operate the museum.
Developers have said the museum will be a world-class, Smithsonian-quality facility that will house collections from Oklahoma-based American Indian tribes, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington and other tribal museums, and attract tourists from around the nation and the world.
Oklahoma, once known as Indian Territory, is home to 39 federally recognized tribes.
House Bill 2237: http://bit.ly/1HhR00S
American Indian Cultural Center and Museum: http://bit.ly/1jEd6fx