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City clock ticking on Slavery Museum
Slavery museum running short on time to begin work under city permit

 The U.S. National Slavery Museum has built a 'Spirit of Freedom Exhibit Garden' on its property in Celebrate Virginia, but has not started work on any buildings. A permit from the city expires if construction isn't started by Aug. 1.
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PDF: View original special-use permit approved by city.
Date published: 3/13/2008

By PAMELA GOULD

U.S. National Slavery Museum officials have 4 months to start construction or face the prospect of returning to square one in the city-approval process.

Fredericksburg officials say it would be possible but difficult to begin building the museum within that timeframe, given that approvals are still needed for the structure and site work. The approval process takes at least two months.

Not only do museum officials not have a building permit or a permit for site work, they hadn't submitted requests for them as of yesterday.

More significantly, the museum does not have the money to build the 290,000-square-foot structure.

Cost estimates have doubled over the past four years. Museum officials said the project would cost $100 million when the design was unveiled; The New York Times reported this week that museum officials now place the estimated cost at $200 million.

Museum spokesman Matt Langan told The Free Lance-Star that museum officials are aware of the Aug. 1 construction deadline and are trying to meet it, but he had no date for work to begin.

"I know construction this year is the plan," he said. "I know it is the goal."

A top official with the company developing Celebrate Virginia, where the museum is to be built, said he would not begin work on a project until he had secured funding.

"Without being 100 percent convinced I had the money to pay the bills, I would not start construction," said Jud Honaker, president of commercial development for The Silver Cos.

The museum's most recent tax return listed net assets of nearly $17.7 million, but nearly all of it--roughly $17.4 million--is the value of the land, which was donated by The Silver Cos.

The museum's 2006 tax return showed a 60 percent drop in funds raised over the previous year--from $938,186 to $383,582 in public contributions.

The 2006 total apparently includes about $50,000 that The New York Times report says the museum raised at a June 2006 gala in Washington.

In June 2007, museum Executive Director Vonita Foster said she needed to raise $10 million by the end of September to open a 2,500-square-foot visitors center by the end of this year.

In September, she didn't say whether she had met that goal. This week, Langan was asked about it but did not provide an answer.


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THE ISSUE

A special-use permit for the U.S. National Slavery Museum requires that construction begin before Aug. 1.

THE WORK

Museum founder L. Douglas Wilder told The New York Times that a $10 million visitors center will be built this year. But no building plans had been submitted to the city regarding the museum or the visitors center as of yesterday.

THE PROCESS

City Planning Director Ray Ocel couldn't recall anyone ever applying for an extension of a special-use permit, but said it can be done.

If museum officials wished to move forward after the permit expired, they would begin the process anew: paying another application fee and then getting approval from the Planning Commission and City Council. That process would take at least three to four months, Ocel said.

JULY 2005: City approves museum's site plan for rough grading.

Rough grading and erosion and sediment control work were done at the 38-acre site, according to city engineer John Scott. However, so much time has elapsed since the work was done that it would need to be redone before construction could start, Scott said.

AUG. 9, 2005: City Council approves special-use permit allowing museum to exceed normal height limit to accommodate the replica slave ship planned as the museum's centerpiece.

Museum has until Aug. 1, 2008, to begin construction or the permit is void. A second site plan and building permit is required before work can begin. City officials said site-plan approval usually takes 60 days and building permit-approval usually takes six weeks. They can be reviewed simultaneously.

APRIL 2007: In response to a request from museum officials, the city released a performance bond of $89,206. City planning and building officials said they've heard nothing from museum officials since then.

Scott, who inspected the site last year, said it is now a "dormant site" and that "it's rare to request bond back before finishing a project.

"As far as I'm concerned, once the bond goes back, the case is closed," he said.