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VMNH: Branch plans won’t drain museum

Sunday, March 2, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Waynesboro will have to fork over some money if it wants a branch of the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH).

The VMNH Board of Trustees voted 10-2 on Saturday to have a schematic design and master plan developed for a proposed Waynesboro location.

VMNH Executive Director Joe Keiper estimated the cost of the design and plan at $40,000 to $50,000. The city of Waynesboro has agreed to pay half the cost, up to $25,000, he said.

The VMNH board’s approval Saturday was based on the VMNH Foundation — the museum’s private fundraising arm — raising the rest of the money among “individuals or entities from Waynesboro or the surrounding region ... who have not previously substantially supported the foundation.”

The museum will not incur liability or spend state funds toward the expense, according to the motion, made by trustee James Severt of Washington, D.C. and formerly of Martinsville. Trustee Dr. Mark Crabtree of Martinsville seconded the motion.

Trustees Lee Lester of Martinsville and Stephen Walker of Charlotte Courthouse were the dissenters.

Lester said she dissented because her husband’s firm, The Lester Group, owns property in the Staunton area, which is near Waynesboro. Due to economic constraints in that area, “I really question if the community can support this” proposed branch, she said.

If the museum wants to develop a branch, “I’d (recommend to) go a little further into Northern Virginia,” Lester said after the board meeting. “That’s where (more) people are,” and that region is more affluent.

Waynesboro is similar to Martinsville in that some of its industries have left in recent years, but its unemployment rate is lower, museum officials said.

“We should proceed with a great deal of caution” due to the Waynesboro area’s economic situation, said board Chairman Missy Neff Gould of Danville. She said having the community come up with funds for the design and plan will be “a test case” of how much people there want a museum branch.

“It keeps the ball moving without ever committing us” to funding anything, Gould said.

How much money is raised there will show “the real depth” of that region’s commitment to the project — whether residents or just Waynesboro City Council want a museum branch, said Crabtree, a former Martinsville mayor.

Waynesboro leaders have shown interest in VMNH having a branch there due to the area’s many nature-related attractions such as the Blue Ridge Parkway, Shenandoah National Park and the South River, a popular fishing destination.

Richmond-based Chmura Economics & Analytics has estimated that construction of a roughly 21,850-square-foot branch museum in Waynesboro would cost about $7.4 million. In comparison, the museum’s 89,127-square-foot facility in Martinsville, which opened in 2007, cost about $13 million. A state bond issue covered the cost.

Keiper said the branch could be smaller than proposed and in a renovated building instead of a new one.

Chmura also has estimated that a Waynesboro branch would receive about 65,600 visitors a year whereas the Martinsville museum gets about 30,000. The branch is anticipated to attract people visiting the state park and traveling on the parkway and nearby Interstates 81 and 64, as well as nearby residents.

Even if a branch elsewhere was to get more visitors, the museum is firmly established in Martinsville and will not leave the city, officials have said.

The Waynesboro branch “would not take anything away from Martinsville,” said Trustee Janet Scheid of Vinton, chairman of the board’s subcommittee studying the branch’s feasibility. “We don’t want to drain this facility in any way.”

The master plan would show, for example, types of things that Waynesboro-area residents want to see at the branch and who its “target audience” would be, Keiper said.

Trustee Lisa Lyle Wu of Arlington suggested making the plan sort of generic so that if another locality eventually shows interest in having a branch of the museum, a plan for that locality could be based on the Waynesboro plan and perhaps not as much money would have to be spent at that time.

Keiper said he expects it will take about six months to have the schematics and the master plan for Waynesboro developed.

But “the first thing Monday,” he said, “the Waynesboro folks are going to know” they have “got to get busy” finding another $20,000 to $25,000 beyond what the city already has committed toward the project.

The museum had branches at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and the University of Virginia (U.Va.) in Charlottesville until about a decade ago when they were closed due to state budget cuts. VMNH finances have since stabilized.

With a goal of making the museum more visible statewide, officials have said now may be the time to launch a new branch somewhere.

Virginia Tech and U.Va., as well as James Madison University in Harrisonburg, have voiced interest in being involved in programs at the Waynesboro branch if it comes to fruition, according to Neff and Keiper.


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