Why the Carnegie matters

Nearly a year after the Snohomish County History Museum was given the boot, Everett’s historic Carnegie Building sits vacant. The Oakes Avenue landmark transcends the disappointment of what-could-have-been musings, however. The empty space — and cue-the-crickets’ silence — serve as a hair-pulling metaphor for the absent leadership of County Executive Aaron Reardon.

The public-private partnership began promisingly enough, with the county effectively rescuing the museum after it was shuttered in 2007. Not meeting its fund-raising goals, the museum, established in 1952, was forced to warehouse its extensive collection. When a raft of irreplaceable items (the collection runs the gamut from a gun used in the 1916 Everett massacre to period industrial equipment) were water damaged, Everett-ites and the historic-preservation community rallied. Locals pointed to the Carnegie, a county-owned property designed by August Heide and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as a fitting home. It was.

“The major need of the museum is a building for displaying its collection,” Reardon said in his 2007 budget address. “In this budget, we are offering a fifty-year lease of the County’s Carnegie Library building to the Museum at one dollar per year if they can establish a community partnership to create ongoing fiscal stability for the museum.” The county subsequently leveraged its partnership to secure a half-million dollar grant from the Washington State Historical Society for seismic upgrades and renovations.

After the Historical Society grant, the county quickly forgot who brought them to the dance. As The Herald’s Noah Haglund reported last October, “Instead of paying $1 per year, the museum learned it would pay an unspecified reduced market rate over 35 years, not 50 years. The rate would be negotiated every five years. The museum also would have to raise about $5 million to overhaul the interior of the building, including plumbing, wiring and flooring.”

Think of it as public policy based on amnesia (and the state’s heritage community has yet to forgive.) By the grace of a gratis lease, the museum’s vast collection is now housed at the Everett Mall.

The issue of the vacant Carnegie building was thrown into relief last Wednesday when the County Council voted 4-1 to approve a contract with a Snohomish Valley farmer to use the county’s grain dryer and seed crusher at the Cathcart facility near Snohomish. The price, not including equipment fees, is $1 per year (Sound familiar?) While taxpayers will debate the merits of the contract — the equipment was sitting idle after all — the inconsistency is striking. A $1-a-year lease to a private firm but no go to a museum with a public mission? Sigh.

Westerners believe in redemption, and there’s still time to make this right. The county and the museum could try to reconcile, perhaps approaching the Legislature and/or private foundations for capital support. Leaders might look to Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry as a template, creating a community gathering place that also showcases the region’s rich history. Imagination, initiative and vision are required. Let’s hope that’s not asking too much.

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