A plan to lease the Oregon Coliseum to a not-for-profit group and turn it into a museum sparked both pros and cons from approximately 75 area residents during a special meeting Feb. 5 held inside the 1923 building, located in the city’s downtown.
“We appreciate your comments,” Oregon Mayor Ken Williams said to the crowd on Wednesday. “We take them all seriously. An engaged community is a successful community. The fact that you showed up shows what a great community the city of Oregon is.”
City officials conducted the meeting to seek public input on the proposal and have yet to vote on approving the plan.
Tom Mahoney, president of the Coliseum Museum of Arts, Antiquities and Americana - the group that would oversee the museum - opened the meeting with a presentation of what the museum would look like.
The main floor of the building was marked with tape and chairs showing how much space would remain after adding the removable exhibits. The stage would remain in the building, Mahoney said.
“We see this building as being underutilized,” Mahoney said. “We want more traffic here. Our vision is to have displays with local art. There’s Lorado Taft work, dioramas that he made. We would have an event that’s an exhibit of Americana like toys, tractors or trains.”
The city would effectively become landlords to CMAAA, leasing it to the group for $1 a year for 49 years.
The city would still be responsible for upkeep of the building, using funds that come from a tax levied by the city for operational and maintenance expenses.
Currently, the Coliseum can be rented by groups and individuals for a variety of uses. But Williams said the city recently did a study on the last three years on who had rented the building and for what purpose and found that it is empty 95 percent of the time.
He said the city brings in approximately $3,000 from the Coliseum per year in rental fees.
Mt. Morris resident Chris Corcoran, an Oregon native, said he started a petition drive against leasing the Coliseum to CMAAA. He presented the 100-signature petition to the council on Wednesday.
He and a few others who spoke at the meeting, suggested the issue should be put up for a referendum to be voted on by the city residents.
“Let the people here decide,” Corcoran said. “It’s a building that everyone pays taxes on. Five people shouldn’t decide.”
Williams disagreed. “We were elected to assume the responsibilities of running the city,” Williams said. “Therefore we try to take all the input. Each council member will have their own thoughts on it. They talk to their own folks.”
The Coliseum is funded by a specific tax paid by Oregon residents. Yearly, it amounts to about $32,000 in funds. It only costs about $7,000 to keep it open and operational each year. The remainder of that money goes into a a long-term reserve for later repairs on the building. The reserve currently holds about $170,000, Williams said.
Local Boy Scout leader Kate Lehrke voiced concerns over what would happen to Boy Scout Troops’ pinewood derbies if the building is turned into a museum.
“We have nowhere else,” Lehrke said. “We have no place to be able to put cars, chairs, track, people and everything else we need to do. We can’t go somewhere else and set up and spend four days doing it. It makes it really rough to serve the kids of this community.”
Lehrke said the building has been used for the races as well as storage of the equipment for as long as she has been with the scouts, at least 15 years. Continuing that wouldn’t be possible if the lease is approved, she said.
Jerry Moats asked if the Military Honor Roll that lists the name of local residents who have served in the military would remain intact if the building became a museum.
Officials said there was no intention to change the wall, located above the entrance of the main floor.
Kent Lawrence attended the meeting and spoke in support of the lease. His organization, the Lawrence Foundation, is not on the CMAAA board, but he did structure it and the Lawrence Foundation has committed funding towards the salary of a director of a possible museum.
Lawrence, of Chicago, spends much of his time in Oregon and his foundation supports local causes.
“It is exciting,” Lawrence said. “Because we can really have an impact here. This is one of the bigger projects. It has a great history and it’s a great place. It’s a great community.”
Jan Stilson spoke in favor of the museum proposal at the meeting. Stilson is the Chairman of the Black Hawk Area Restoration and Development Committee and thinks Oregon is known for its art and culture and benefits from it.
“With this Black Hawk project, the news has gone coast to coast,” Stilson said. “And BARD is in favor of this museum. We can have all kinds of programs all year long. People that come here for art use our services like restaurants and gasoline.”
Oregon resident Joshua Zumdahl was skeptical of how much traffic and benefit that the museum can bring to the downtown area.
“We’re going to bring another museum here?” Zumdahl said. “If this is going to draw all this tourism, how? Nobody knows this exists. I’m all for filling an empty space. But I don’t want my taxes going to keeping someone else’s business open. There’s higher priorities than statues.”
If the lease is approved by the council, a director of the museum would be hired. A director would be paid 75 percent by CMAAA and 25 percent by the city. The city’s share would come out of its economic development fund.
The director would work for the city 25 percent of the time and help with the development downtown and bringing in shows, festivals and other tourism, Williams said.
The CMAAA includes representatives from governmental, not-for-profit organizations, and community leaders from Oregon. The organizations involved are Oregon School District, Oregon Park District, Oregon Public Library, Serenity Hospice & Home, Chana School, Oregon Depot, Village of Progress, and Ogle County Historical Society.