Budget crisis may force four museums to close


RENO -- Four of seven Nevada state museums, including the flagship Nevada Historical Society in Reno, are targeted for closure Aug. 1 because of the state's historic budget crisis.

With a projected deficit of $1.1 billion to $3 billion, the state also plans to close the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City, the East Ely Railroad Depot and the Lost City Museum in Overton, said Peter Barton, acting administrator of the state Division of Museums and History.

Plans call for the state museums in Carson City and Las Vegas and the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Boulder City to remain open.

"We recognize the extreme financial crisis the state finds itself in," Barton said. "One would hope that there would be other solutions offered, but at this point we are moving forward with plans to mothball four museums next summer."

Nevada's plight isn't unique among states as the sluggish economy hits museums hard from coast to coast, forcing boosts in entry fees and cuts in budgets and staff.

But only Illinois and Delaware have seen such extensive closures, and they were only temporary, said Dewey Blanton, spokesman for the American Association of Museums based in Washington, D.C.

Nevada officials are hoping their museums can eventually reopen, too.

"It's among the most drastic retrenchments we've heard of in the country," Blanton said of the planned Nevada closures. "Because of the recession, Nevada's history is becoming inaccessible."

Nevada faces its worst budget climate in decades, and incoming Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval is refusing to raise taxes. He calls tax hikes the worst thing the state could do during a recession. Nevada leads the nation in home foreclosures and bankruptcies, and has the highest unemployment rate at 14.2 percent.

Sandoval has been crafting a plan that would trim 10 percent from state agencies and could extend furloughs for public employees.

But those and other cuts would still leave a more than $1 billion shortfall, according to the state's Economic Forum, an independent panel of experts.

Still, Sandoval realizes the importance of museums and will do his best to keep them open, said Heidi Gansert, his chief of staff. She noted that Sandoval senior adviser Dale Erquiaga oversaw the museums as director of the Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs.

"It's premature to say what's going to happen because we haven't finalized the budget," Gansert said. "We can't say whether they'll stay open or not."

Leaders of a statewide petition drive have gathered 4,000 to 5,000 signatures so far in an effort to keep the museums open, said Dan Markoff, a Las Vegas lawyer and member of the state Board of Museums and History.

Museum budgets have already been slashed by 50 percent to $3.4 million since July 2008, far more than any other state agency, Markoff said.

Museums not only serve educational and research functions, but generate millions of dollars in tourism, he added.

"The response to the petition is an incredible showing that the people of Nevada want the crown jewels of history to be preserved," said Markoff, a Republican. "The budget burden has been on museums to an unconscionable degree."

Patty Cafferata, former Nevada state treasurer, said she could not have written six books on Nevada history without documents and photographs from the Nevada Historical Society in Reno. Founded in 1904, it is Nevada's oldest museum.

"Not that I would want to see the others closed, but I think the historical society should certainly be spared," Cafferata said. "There's no other place where you can find those materials. It would be a real tragedy to close it."

Despite the push to reduce the scope of government to core functions, Barton thinks the state can justify keeping the museums open because they are investments that contribute to local economies.

He said the railroad museum in Carson City, for instance, gets a state appropriation of roughly $600,000 a year but contributes $1.9 million a year to the community.

"We're at the point where programs are barely able to survive," Barton said. "The program gets so thin it implodes, and that's what we're up with museums right now."

 

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