Heritage Center needs to turn to the community


Many, many towns in Montana, large and small, have a museum. And so do we. It's housed in a larger showcase of north-central Montana's rich past - the Heritage Center.

This is a building well worth maintaining. It is one of the most beautiful buildings in Havre. Its interior is gorgeous. It houses our outstanding county museum and art gallery. It is the focus of much of our history and also of our cultural life.

It's also an expensive building to take care of. Unable to meet those expenses, the Clack Foundation, which took on the responsibility of operating the Heritage Center when the city bought the building from the U.S. Postal Service in 1996, has come to the city of Havre and Hill County looking for help.

The county eliminated a part-time museum curator position so it could give cash to the Heritage Center.

Now it's the city's turn to take up the question. The City Council will vote on this issue Monday night.

Here's what likely will happen and what should happen, given the city's budget constraints: The city will continue to pay insurance premiums on the building and will supply some services like snow removal and some janitorial work.

But that's it.

It's the old case of getting blood from a stone. The city cannot raise taxes to help out the Heritage Center. The city is close to the cap set by the Legislature on how much tax revenue it can raise. Barring a growth spurt in Havre, the city can collect as much tax revenue as it did last year with a very small adjustment for inflation.

That doesn't come close to covering the 35-plus percent hike in natural gas rates and the new 15 percent increase in electricity rates granted to NorthWestern Energy. And it doesn't allow for any raises for employees.

To pay for cost increases it can't tax for, the city last year took money from a special improvement district revolving fund that had more money than it needed.

That was a one-time fix.

The one-time fix this year will likely be from the city's reserve funds.

So unless the city cuts some services it already provides, it has no money to give the Heritage Center.

Heritage Center folks recognized that and instead asked the city to share $8,932 of city capital improvement money for Heritage Center projects. That number includes $4,132 to replace 30 radiator valve assemblies in the building and $4,800 to make the lighting and fixtures in the center more energy efficient.

Capital improvement money is the best way the city has to help the Heritage Center. But the center is in serious competition with other projects to get some of those dollars as well.

Once again, it means that for every dollar of CIP money the Heritage Center gets, that's less money for other city projects.

Given these realities, it may be time for the Clack Foundation board to withdraw its ultimatum of: Give us money or we're going to turn care of the building back to the city. That ultimatum seemed a curious strategy to begin with. After all, the Clack Foundation has been short of funds to operate the Heritage Center for some time. It usually responded to those budget crunches by turning to the community for support. That's what it could be doing now. The ultimatum, rather than shaking dollars loose from a bare money tree, has stirred up animosity among those who remember the Clack Foundation's promise to operate the center without the help of tax dollars.

There's hope for the Heritage Center in other venues. The Clack Foundation board is hoping that an endowment that was set up for the Clack Museum can be rolled into its own endowment. If that works out, the foundation endowment will be very near the $250,000 required for the foundation to begin tapping interest from the fund to spend on the Heritage Center, according to the Clack Foundation board. That apparently was the foundation's plan for taking care of the center when it took responsibility for it in 1996.

The Clack Foundation may be able to find a way to reduce some of its own operating expenses. Meanwhile, it could become more inventive and aggressive in attracting office space renters.

Maybe the Havre City Council will find a way to give the Heritage Center some capital improvement dollars. Monday will be the time for supporters to present a show of solidarity to the council.

But for the long term, the Clack Foundation needs to turn to its real source of strength - the entire community.

Support for the center is strong in Havre. Many people appreciate and want to preserve the icon of Havre's storied past. The Clack Foundation can successfully tap that support if it makes more of an effort to transform a lovely old building into the center of Havre's cultural and civic life.


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