Six years after it was founded, a museum celebrating the history of blacks in Minnesota remains closed and at risk of losing nearly $1.4 million in state funding.
Backers of the Minnesota African American Museum said they've done everything required to qualify for the state grants, which are critical to the museum's future.
"We are not giving up. I don't care what they do," said Shirlynn LaChapelle, the museum's vice chair. "This means a lot. This is our history."
The museum has taken in nearly $1.8 million from various local donors, including a $435,000 loan from founder Roxanne Givens, since 2008 and spent nearly $700,000 to renovate its planned home, a stately brick Queen Anne Victorian mansion just south of downtown Minneapolis.
Records show the museum spent nearly $25,000 for a "grand opening" in 2012. But the museum has been ensnared in a dispute with its contractor since then.
The home, yard and carriage house are in disarray, with peeling paint, exposed wires and construction materials scattered in the yard. A distressed "Summer 2011" sign sits on its front steps, and the phone is not in service.
Givens; the museum's new president, Nekima Levy-Pounds, and new executive director Lissa Jones, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Civil rights activist Ron Edwards said he is troubled by the void the museum has left in the community.
"A lot of damage has been done to the African-American community because that museum was so important to the cultural and historical development," he said. He's worried that the museum may not open in his lifetime.
"I hope I'm proven wrong, but I don't think it'll happen," he said.
High hopes early on
Givens and a group of founding members began work on the museum in 2008, with plans to raise $6 million to renovate the building.
The museum reached out to private donors like General Mills, which has given $300,000 to date. In 2011, the Legislature approved a $1 million grant for construction costs. But problems arose in August 2012, when the state said it would not release the funds until it was listed in the first position on the museum mortgage. The mortgage lender, Franklin Bank, would not cede that spot without some other form of collateral.
The museum was able to buy out its loan with the help of the Pohlad Foundation.
Meanwhile, e-mails obtained by the Star Tribune through a data practices request indicate that Givens forged ahead with plans to remodel the house, even though she had been warned to wait until the money was disbursed.
"I did warn Roxanne several times early on that it was a risk to proceed with the renovation work before the state grant was finalized, but she had made commitments to certain events and felt she had to go forward, I guess," Kathy Kardell, an employee with the Hennepin County Office of Budget and Finance, wrote in a 2012 e-mail to county officials.
The contractor, Knutson Construction, eventually halted work because it said it was owed $800,000. A lien was placed on the property in November 2013.
Marina Muñoz Lyon, vice president and director of the Pohlad Family Foundation, said it's not considering any other support to the museum until the lien is paid off and the museum opens its doors.
"We need to see how everything gets resolved," Muñoz Lyon said.
Conflict with state, county
In addition to resolving the lien, the state wants to see an updated construction budget, matching contributions from private sources, and proof that the museum has the ability and a plan to fund the project before it releases the grant money.
The e-mails also show that county and state officials also expressed concern about the museum's future. An e-mail between county officials in April 2013 says the county had not received evidence the museum had "the ability and a plan to fund the operation."
"The concern here is that the museum has not yet provided satisfactory evidence that it will be able to open and operate the museum over the long-term," Kardell wrote to County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.
Givens and others on the museum's board believe the state and county are creating new obstacles to get the money. In a March e-mail, Givens said she would have never gone after the state funds without understanding all that was required to get it.
"The process and qualifications are too robust for MAAM [the Minnesota African American Museum]," she said.
In an interview, McLaughlin said he met with museum and state representatives in late April to discuss how to get the money for the museum. At that time, he said the museum and county each had issues to resolve but that he was optimistic.
"We are making progress," he said when asked for an update last week.
Is it open? Some think it is
The clock is also ticking on a $396,000 Legacy grant approved for the museum in 2013. In the contract for the funding, Givens proposed hosting at least 1,000 annual visitors, three distinct exhibits and a minimum of 50 annual class field trips. She presented a budget to the state with expenditures of $169,500 for educational materials and $130,000 in salaries.
In order to get the money, the museum must show it has spent money on functions like new exhibits and then submit receipts.
The museum has yet to do that, said Curt Yoakum with the state's Department of Administration. Receipts are due at the end of June, but if the museum hasn't used the money by then, it can ask for a one-year extension.
Time also appears to be running out for the building itself. In a March e-mail sent to Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, and other state representatives, Givens and Jones asked for an additional $ 1 million and expressed frustration that the earlier $1 million award has not been disbursed.
"The physical property of the [museum] has languished, and physically deteriorated, to a catastrophic point," Givens wrote, adding that the lien is the result of the county staff's inexperience and the museum's "inability to communicate the dire need for action."
A proposed budget contained in the e-mails reveals the museum's new leaders intend to open the museum in January 2015.
Edwards said the ongoing delays have created confusion about whether the museum is actually up and running.
"What it has done in the community is people actually get in arguments saying the museum is open," he said. "It's not open. It's not close to being open."