Indian center gets $6M from governor’s office

By Julie Bisbee
Oklahoma City (AP) October 2010

The infusion of $6 million in federal stimulus dollars is keeping construction going at the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum.

Gov. Brad Henry’s office gave the Native American Cultural and Education Authority the money from the governor’s discretionary fund. The money will allow construction on the $177.5 million project to continue through the next legislative session. This past summer, officials worried the project would run out of money and sit idle after lawmakers failed to hear a bill to allow the museum to sell revenue bonds to pay for construction.

Officials with the museum are hoping lawmakers will authorize a $43 million bond issue that will keep construction going on the museum through completion in 2015, said Gena Timberman, executive director of the Native American Cultural and Education Authority. The bond dollars would be matched with $45 million in private funds.

The bonds would be issued over a two-year period and would not be sold until private matching dollars have been secured, Timberman said.

The authority will ask the Legislature to hear the bill again when lawmakers return to the Capitol in February. Until then, federal stimulus dollars will keep work going on the 125,000-square-foot building.

“What we have is a temporary Band-Aid,” Timberman told The Oklahoman. “We’re applying that to the project, and it will take us into the spring.”

The stimulus money the cultural center received was meant to pay for a settlement to resolve a dispute over classes taught in Tulsa. A group of Langston University alumni filed a lawsuit in the 1980s after several universities were allowed to teach similar courses that Langston taught in Tulsa. A 1978 agreement between the state, the U.S. Health Department, Education Department and Welfare’s Office of Civil Rights allowed Oklahoma’s historically black college to offer elementary education courses in Tulsa.

About $14 million had been set aside in the governor’s fund and the $6 million was given to the cultural center when it appeared the dispute was not going to be quickly resolved, said Paul Sund, spokesman for Henry. Sund said settlement talks continue.

The museum that will highlight American Indian culture from Oklahoma and across the country has received $66.3 million in state bond issues. Federal grants for the project total up to $14.5 million, including stimulus dollars, Timberman said.

Private donors, which include tribes throughout Oklahoma, have contributed $4.2 million. Donations from tribes are expected to increase if lawmakers approve the bond issue proposal.

“The tribes plan to be a part of this,” Timberman said. “But this is a state asset. This is not just about tribal history, this is about Oklahoma’s history and our present day identity.”

At the construction site, the gallery space is nearly complete. The building stretches across the site and flows into a large promontory mound the large hill that can be seen from Interstate 35. Workers put the finishing touches on a native stone entry where 100,000 stones were laid.

The white steel support beams of the Hall of the People are in place and cast a shadow across the construction site.

Creation of a center to highlight Oklahoma’s American Indian heritage has been in the works for more than a decade. The Native American Cultural and Educational Authority was created in 1994 to design, establish and sell bonds to build the facility. It’s on land donated by Oklahoma City.

The museum complex, which is expected to include lodging and art galleries, will be complete by 2015 if lawmakers approve the bond issue next session, Timberman said. The development, off Eastern Avenue and Interstate 40, is expected to bring in nearly $7.5 million in state tax revenue a year, Timberman said.