Craig museum an example for county

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On a Wednesday morning, there were a half dozen people at the Museum of Northwest Colorado in Craig.

The visitors had a chance to see a 1924 fire truck, jewel-studded dresses from the early 1900s, photos of honest pioneers and crooked bandits, old cameras, ice makers and telephones.

The museum's upper room -- the Cowboy/Gunfighter Museum -- was empty save for Ed Smith, a visitor from Woods Cross, Utah, who slowly walked along the wooden floor.

Smith scanned the glass cases of guns, holsters, chaps, bridles and saddles, all varieties of gear that cowboys and gunfighters used to survive in the Old West. He paused before a large case of old Winchester rifles that Smith collects himself.

"You can reach back into history," he said, describing why he collects the rifles. "Where else can you get a piece of history? ... You can purchase it, and you can actually experience it.

"I think (this museum) is fantastic. It's one of the nicer ones that I've seen. Especially in a smaller town to have something this classy. It's really a nice museum."

Museums in Routt County are struggling to find enough funds to survive for another year, and are prepared to ask taxpayers for a 0.3 mill levy for support museum functions. Craig's museum, which has an extensive collection housed in a large facility, doesn't have a funding problem.

"In our case, we're almost totally a county museum, because they own the building, own the collections and pay the staff," said Dan Davidson, director at the Museum of Northwest Colorado. "Over the last 12 years, they've put in over $2 million or so."

How it began

The Museum of Northwest Colorado has been a county operation since it began in 1964. When it opened to the public with the name of the Moffat County Museum, it was just a few glass cases with collections in the center of the Moffat County Courthouse, and it was staffed by volunteers, Davidson said.

The attitude, Davidson said, always was that the museum would operate solely on county money.

In the 1980s, when Davidson was on the museum's board, the number of volunteers declined to the point that the museum was only staffed about half a day each week. There were maybe a few hundred visitors a year, he said.

But prospects changed when county commissioners decided a building donated to the county by the National Guard should become the museum's home.

The county hired Davidson full time to help move the museum and found that more staff was necessary in the larger building.

"You couldn't just have it nonstaffed," Davidson said. "So that created pretty much a totally different type of museum."

Attracting visitors

Since opening in its new building in 1991, Craig's museum has seen visitors and collections increase.

In 1993, the museum attracted about 8,100 visitors. Last year, there were 18,100.

The museum had a budget of about $100,000 in 1992, and last year, its budget was about $234,000, with about $40,000 brought in through museum revenues.

Davidson said feedback on the museum is mostly positive.

"I think it's usually good," he said. "Certainly for the funding to have continued as it has, they have to be happy with it. It has to have a good reputation and the public has to enjoy it."

Whether county commissioners deliberately planned to fully fund the museum when they moved it to the bigger building is something Davidson said he didn't know.

"I don't suppose the county commissioners even realized what they had created," Davidson said.

But, full county support also means that funding could change if the economy changes. Davidson said the museum was considering other ways to raise funds.

Atypical approach

Davidson is thankful for the county's support.

"The commissioners have been extremely supportive since I've been here," he said. "It's just amazing -- most museums aren't as fortunate as we are."

Routt County commissioners have been meeting with the Friends of Heritage Fund Group to discuss how to put a .3-mill levy in place that would provide more than $200,000 a year for county museums and historical societies.

The idea has been presented to city councils and town boards in Steamboat Springs, Hayden, Oak Creek and Yampa. Both Steamboat Springs and Hayden councils expressed support for the initiative. The Oak Creek Board was more divided, and at the July 2 meeting in Yampa, concerns with the levy were expressed.

If this initiative makes it to the ballot, Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger said it is a first step in finding a more stable source of funding for the county's museums and historical societies.

Monger said funding museums completely is not something the county would do. He said it's the county's policy to keep discretionary spending at a minimum.

"Government has a purpose out here, and that's to provide those mandated services that we are providing," Monger said. "The public hasn't established that (museums) are where their tax money needs to go."

By not funding the museums and letting them stay under local control, different communities can provide the type of services they need, he said.

"Moffat County, by being able to fund the Craig museum, they have a lot more discretion and control over the top of the museum," Monger said. "In our case with the different communities and the different sizes of museums, you have the ability to create the museum that fits the community with the funds that come from the community to fulfill the need of the community."

Fight to survive

Some Routt County museums, such as The Tread of Pioneers Museum in downtown Steamboat, are having a tough time bringing in enough funding to survive.

The Tread of Pioneers, a nonprofit organization, aims to support full-time staff and to operate year-round, a feat that executive director Marty Woodbury said gets harder each year, especially after the city cut some of the funds it had provided to the museum.

Last year, Woodbury said the museum was "basically hanging by a thread" until donations and fund-raisers came through to keep the museum going another year.

"But it starts again next year, and we're back holding on by our fingernails," she said.

The museum has turned to a range of money-making endeavors, from admissions and donations, to fund-raisers and grants, to make it. That much time spent on finding money is tough on the museum's goal of educating the community and preserving its history.

"We're expending so much effort in a frenzy of fund raising that we feel that we can't devote enough time to the job of education," Woodbury said.

In a first step toward getting the necessary funding, Woodbury said that museum surveyed other museums across the state that were similar to see how they made it.

"The general findings of that story were that 85 percent of the small historical museums were funded -- at least partially -- by the county and city in that area," Woodbury said.

That prodded the museum to look into other sources of funding, such as the mill levy.

Holding on to history

The Yampa Egeria Museum is one exception. It's owned by the town, which pays the museum's utilities and owns the building. But all of the museum's collections are donated and all of its staff are volunteers.

Director Wendy Moreau said although she agrees that museums play an important role in society, she doesn't agree that people should be taxed for them.

"Personally I feel that it's wrong to tax for something like this. I feel that taxes should be for infrastructure. ... I feel that if you're doing your job, the community at large will support your museum.

"At least speaking for down here, the history of this area is so important to everybody and we're so proud of it and there's just no way that we're going lose it."

The Museum of Northwest Colorado's Davidson said museums are a important pieces of communities.

"Are museums essential for life? Technically no -- I'd rather have a hospital in a community than a museum," Davidson said. "But if you want to have something else, they're woven to whatever fabric that community wants to preserve.

"(Without museums) you'll lose your cultural history... that's our history."

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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