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Slavery museum's future in doubt
Overdue taxes and apparent departure of director raise questions about slavery museum's status

 'Hallelujah' by Ken Smith was unveiled during the opening of the museum's Spirit of Freedom Garden in 2007.
FILE/SCOTT NEVILLE/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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Date published: 2/21/2009

BY PAMELA GOULD

Eight months ago, then-Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder visited Fredericksburg to plead with City Council to give tax-exempt status to the slavery museum he announced for Celebrate Virginia seven years earlier.

He acknowledged that his duties as mayor of Richmond had hindered the project's progress. Construction hasn't begun and building permits have never been sought.

"One of the reasons we haven't gone further is speaking to you now--me," Wilder told the council on June 10.

But the former governor and grandson of slaves stressed that financing the U.S. National Slavery Museum had been a major challenge and that the burden of paying taxes on the museum's 38-acre property was a weight the city could lift if it wanted the project.

"Either you want the museum here or you don't," Wilder told the Fredericksburg council. "Clearly, paying the kind of monies that we'd have to pay wouldn't help us in that direction."

But council was not swayed.

Two weeks later, in a 6-1 vote with Councilman Hashmel Turner dissenting, the council denied Wilder's request.

The next tax bill, due in November, went unpaid.

As of this week, with pen-alty and interest added, the museum owed $24,093.02, according to the city treasurer's office.

Now, two months after Wilder's mayoral term ended, no Fredericksburg official has seen or heard from him.

Councilman Turner's attempts to reach him for information have been unsuccessful.

Former Fredericksburg Mayor Lawrence Davies is uncertain whether he remains on the museum board.

And every indication suggests that the museum's small staff--including Executive Director Vonita Foster--is gone.

EMPTY OFFICES

The last certain sighting of Foster at the museum offices in the Uptown section of Central Park was in November.

People who work near the museum's leased space on the second floor of 1320 Central Park Boulevard--doors labeled 244, 250 and 251--say they've seen no one in December, January or this month.

The museum never had much staff beyond Foster and one assistant.

The Free Lance-Star has found no one during repeated visits to the office. The paper has left voice-mail messages for Foster at the museum offices and on her home number, and has sent e-mails to her museum account and a personal account but has never received any response.


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RECENT MUSEUM CHRONOLOGY BY THE NUMBERS

OCT. 8, 2001: Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder announces Fredericksburg as the site for his U.S. National Slavery Museum. It is to be built on 38.165 acres donated by the Silver Cos. and located within the Celebrate Virginia tourism development. NOV. 15, 2007: $2,022.75 of the $20,227.45 tax bill has been paid. DECEMBER 2007: Museum starts automatic bill payment in which funds are automatically withdrawn from a bank account each month to cover taxes. FEBRUARY 2008: November tax bill, penalty and interest are paid off. MAY 12, 2008: Tax bill due May 15 is paid ($21,372.40) along with an extra $3.85. Last automatic bill payment is received. MAY 16, 2008: Executive Director Vonita Foster sends city a request to extend deadline to begin construction by one year. Council had set an Aug. 1, 2008, deadline in 2005 as a condition of approving a special-use permit to allow the museum's height to exceed what zoning normally allows. JUNE 4, 2008: Foster writes letter to city asking for exemption from real-estate taxes retroactive to 2002. Foster writes that the museum hopes to start construction within a year if exemption is granted. JUNE 10, 2008: Wilder appears before City Council to plead for the tax exemption. He says "all we need to build is money" and gives no date for the start of construction. JUNE 24, 2008: City Council votes 6-1 (with Councilman Hashmel Turner dissenting) to deny the tax exemption. SEPT. 9, 2008: City Council approves museum's request to extend by one year deadline to begin construction. New deadline is Aug. 1, 2009. NOV. 15, 2008: Real- estate tax bill of $21,368.55 goes unpaid. Penalty and interest begin accruing. Two-year clock to pay or face sale of property begins. NOVEMBER 2008: Last certain sighting of Foster at museum offices in Central Park. FEBRUARY 2009: $24,093.02 in back taxes, penalty and interest are due to city.

MAY 15, 2009: Tax bill of $21,372.40 due.

JAN. 1, 2011: Date city can send letter notifying museum of the sale of its 38 acres if taxes due Nov. 15, 2008, remain unpaid. The only way to stop a sale at that point is to pay the taxes in full prior to the sale. If the land is sold, city gets its tax money first. Any others owed money would be paid. Any remaining proceeds would go to the museum.

$75,130.21

Total paid in real-estate taxes since museum started paying in 2003

$24,093.02

Taxes plus penalty and interest overdue from Nov. 15, 2008, bill

$21,372.40

Additional tax due May 15, 2009

10

Percentage set by city as penalty for late payment of taxes. It is also the annualized percentage rate charged for the penalty.

2

Number of years city must wait for payment of delinquent taxes before it can sell a property.

Source: City treasurer's office