Fundraising for U.S. Marshals Museum near ‘critical mass’

by Jim Dunn ( 89 views 

Editor’s note: This is the second of two guest commentaries from Jim Dunn, president of the U.S. Marshals Museum Foundation. Link here for the first commentary.
In June 2009, the Board of Directors of the U.S. Marshals Museum accepted the challenge of building an iconic Museum building, representative of the now-227 year history of the nation’s oldest law enforcement agency, the U.S. Marshals Service.

The design is a stylized “America’s Star,” the symbol of the U.S. Marshals Service. The Board believed the star to represent a “national museum” – one that would tell a national story. The Board also believed the America’s Star design should reach national, and not just local, audiences.

The story of the U.S. Marshals Service is deeply national, created when President George Washington signed the Judiciary Act of 1789, a foundational document upon which the federal judiciary is built. Marshals continue today as an indispensable tool in protecting Americans from foes, domestic and foreign, and in preserving and protecting our system of justice.

The 2009 estimated budget for the 50,000-square-foot building was $22.5 million. The remainder of the estimated $50 million capital budget also included site work of $2.5 million, architectural and exhibit design, exhibit fabrication and installation, contingencies, a $4 million endowment, and other costs. The budget excluded operational, fundraising, and startup/staffing up expenses. It also excluded land costs since the Robbie Westphal family had committed to donating a riverfront site.

Fundraising for a national museum in Fort Smith has its own special challenges. The U.S. Marshals Service is known because of its Old West history but little else is widely known of the low-profile agency. Fort Smith is not a high-profile American city. While the project has received support nationally and outside Fort Smith, convincing donors to export large chunks of money to a distant and unknown community is difficult. Unlike universities, the military, and other organizations, the U.S. Marshals Service doesn’t have a large base of wealthy constituents or alumni. Arkansans outside western Arkansas generally consider the Museum to be a “Fort Smith project” because of the notoriety of Judge Isaac C. Parker’s court.

The Museum has raised nearly $30 million, but this includes the non-cash property site donation. The project has spent money on pre-construction costs, educational programming, operations, and fundraising. It still must raise $32 million, and that figure will surely rise when the costs are updated. The Museum’s website provides information and a more detailed explanation of its capital goal.

The tools are available to raise the money needed to build the Museum. If an updated cost estimate is prohibitive, or if funding does not materialize as hoped, then an alternate design and other cost-saving measures will have to be considered. The community has invested its time and treasure in the Museum. The U.S. Marshals Service also has staked its hopes on the community. A U.S. Marshals Museum MUST be built.

So, what are the “tools available” to raise the money? There are significant outstanding asks, and more to be made. Creative funding initiatives are under consideration and could be game changers. The project is near critical mass, when a large gift, or a major funding source, or both, could demonstrate without question that the Museum will be built. Those who believe in the community and the project, but are understandably reluctant to commit funds until more progress is apparent, await a strong signal that the Museum will indeed be built. Donors outside the area, including foundations, are much more likely to support the project as it nears the finish line.

There are many moving parts to coordinate in moving forward: the progress of fundraising, new and creative funding opportunities, community expectations, updated project costs, determination of the amount needed to begin actual construction, and the coordination of architectural and exhibit design with construction, to name a few.

Doubt and cynicism are the enemies of the Museum’s progress, not the millions left to raise.

The community has invested its time and treasure in the Museum. The Fort Smith region’s identity is steeped in the history of the U.S. Marshals. The community momentum toward a brighter future for our children and grandchildren, for further economic development, and for downtown revitalization and riverfront development depends at least partially upon the success of the project.

Whatever the next year or so brings, Patrick Weeks has joined the Museum staff as president and CEO at the right time. He has the background and skill set to lead the project to fruition, whether it be the Museum as designed or another version that will fit more comfortably with the pocketbook.

A local bank’s television ad captures perfectly this moment for the Museum. “Every day I stand tall because I’m excited to see what’s next.”