OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — It's been more than a year since Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation authorizing the city of Oklahoma City to complete and operate the unfinished American Indian Cultural Center and Museum.
Yet the unfinished concrete-and-steel structure sits empty and construction is at a standstill while city officials and the Ada-based Chickasaw Nation work out the details of a complex partnership for operating and maintaining the 173,000-square-foot museum and developing the surrounding 200 or so acres of commercial property along the Oklahoma River.
Both sides are trying to conform to the requirements of the 24-page legislation that authorized the state-owned museum and allows the tribe to fully develop the commercial acreage, according to Oklahoma City Finance Director Craig Freeman. It's that development, museum executive director Blake Wade said, that will help pay for the museum's operating and maintenance costs — things like hotels, restaurants and shops filled with arts, crafts and other items produced by American Indians.
"It's just trying to get all the details of that. They want to make sure they have full access for development," Freeman said. "It's an unusual agreement. It really is a partnership. Without the partnership, there's no agreement."
Wade describes the museum's location at the junction of Interstates 35 and 40 near downtown Oklahoma City as "the crossroads of America."
"It is our natural resource, the American Indian," Wade said. "This is truly a destination spot when this opens. We couldn't ask for a better spot."
In March, city officials accepted an agreement with the state of Oklahoma to complete and operate the unfinished state-owned museum. The Chickasaw Nation, which operates the 109-acre Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, agreed last year to partner with the city.
Construction began in 2006 but has been dormant since 2012 when the project ran out of money and the Republican-controlled Legislature refused to allocate new funds. The state has already spent about $90 million on the project and is paying about $7 million a year to maintain the property and make payments on earlier construction bonds.
Completing the structure will cost another $80 million, Wade said, a sum that will be shared by the state, the city, private donors and the tribe. Plus, under legislation signed by Gov. Mary Fallin signed in May 2015, the state will provide an additional $25 million in bonds to complete the museum. The city will put $9 million toward the completion, on top of operating and maintaining it.
Wade said another $31 million will be provided by individual and corporate donors and that the Chickasaw Nation — which owns the WinStar World Casino and Resort in southern Oklahoma and The Artesian Hotel in Sulphur and has extensive expertise in the tourism and hospitality industries — will provide the balance, about $15 million.
The delays and setbacks have been frustrating for supporters who believe the museum will be a world-class showcase for Oklahoma's American Indian heritage. The state has 39 federally recognized tribes.
Already, Wade said, vacation planners and holiday tour companies from as far away as Europe and Asia call to find out when they can plan a visit.
"We're constantly being called to see if we're open yet," Wade said.
Construction could resume this year with the structure fully operational in 2020.
"We would like to move it ahead as soon as possible," Freeman said. "But I think getting it done right is more important than getting it done fast."
Meanwhile, Wade said museum officials are meeting with the project's architects, dusting off plans for completing the museum and updating the exhibit designs.
Exhibits and interpretive programs will be developed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates of New York City, whose work at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, has drawn praise.
Wade said Appelbaum's involvement has opened doors for cooperation from many other tribal-related museums, including the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.