State museum needs private help to open

The Springs Preserve is earning a place within the growing cultural landscape of Southern Nevada. It hosts weekly farmers markets and jazz performances, monthly historical discussions and regular ecological tours. The Wolfgang Puck Café, with its cityscape views, has become a popular lunch spot for workers in the area.

But the Springs Preserve is incomplete. The 180-acre facility at U.S. 95 and Valley View Boulevard is missing a certain something to give it weight, depth, perspective.

That certain something is the Nevada State Museum.

Today, the Nevada State Museum is located in a hard-to-find spot within Lorenzi Park, near Rancho Drive and Washington Avenue. It's an interesting museum, packed with exhibits documenting the natural and human history of this region. But attendance is low.

"It's so off the beaten track," says David Millman, the museum's director.

As the Springs Preserve was conceived in the late 1990s, the idea of building a new state museum on the site emerged. About $35 million in funding for the new museum was included in a $200 million bond question for conservation and recreation projects. Nevada voters approved the bond in 2002.

After construction of the museum started several years later, it became clear that $35 million wasn't going to be enough to complete the job.

"What happened is there was a tremendous amount of inflation in the cost of building materials," Millman says. "At one point we couldn't even get materials, because we were competing with big projects on the Strip."

Museum officials appealed to the Legislature in 2007 and secured an additional $11.5 million. This provided sufficient funding to complete the facility but left nothing for furnishings, equipment or exhibits.

"We had to use it all to finish the building," Millman says.

So, the good news is the building will be finished by February. "Tiberti Construction is going great guns," Millman says. "They are just phenomenal. They are just working like crazy on it. It'll happen."

The bad news is the museum can't relocate into the new building right away. There's no money left, and with the state facing a major budget crisis, there isn't any public money to scrounge up. As a result, a planned May 2009 opening has been delayed.

"It was a decision that wasn't made easily," Millman says. "But it was either delay the opening or lay people off and reduce programs throughout the whole museum system, or even possibly close a museum in the state. The thing to do seemed to be to avoid those things and delay the opening."

Since public money is really hard to come by right now, museum officials are taking a new approach. "We're trying to find a private solution to this," Millman says.

This move will no doubt please advocates of public-private partnerships and whatnot. But regardless of whether it's a good idea, it's the only solution -- in the short run, at least -- that museum officials can come up with.

An estimated $6 million is needed to get the new museum up and running. Millman and others are pursuing private donors who would like to help the museum reach its potential.

"It's a great opportunity for somebody to get involved with a long-term project and have their name associated with it," Millman says. "This is part of the maturation of Las Vegas into a real big city. It's an important project."

Potential donors run the gamut, of course, but pioneer Las Vegas families are the place to start. It's not hard to imagine certain well-known local names contributing and receiving naming rights to various aspects of the museum. After all, these pioneers not only helped make Las Vegas what it is today, but they benefited greatly from the city's rise as well.

Not only will the new museum be twice as big and enjoy increased visibility at the Springs Preserve, but it will put on a better show.

"The exhibits will be more dynamic," Millman says. "Some of our current exhibits are kind of static. And we'll have more facilities for the community to use. It will be a pretty great facility."

Assuming private donors come through, officials hope to open the museum in May 2010.

Mark your calendars: That's when the Springs Preserve will be complete.

Geoff Schumacher ( is publisher of Las Vegas CityLife, an alternative newsweekly owned by the same company as the Review-Journal. He also is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.