Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ohio House votes to give Freedom Center $3.1 million operating subsidy

Please contact your Senators immediately to stop this waste of money

Earlier this week, the Ohio House of Representatives passed its version of the 2009-2011 Biennial Budget, and it included $3.1 million in operating subsidy for the failed National Underground Railroad Freedom Center -- $1.55 million per year for the next two years. The subsidy is the most devoted to any museum in Ohio, although the Freedom Center attracts fewer than 62,000 visitors per year – a small fraction of Ohio’s successful museums.

COASTers still have a chance to influence the outcome of this debate by contacting your State Senators NOW, and asking them to support an amendment to strip the wasteful funding from the bill.

When it originally sought Federal, State, County and City subsidy for its $110 million construction cost, Freedom Center executives promised that it would not ever require any operating subsidy. Then, three years ago, Freedom Center CEO John Pepper announced that because the Freedom Center was not meeting its financial and attendance projections, it required millions of tax dollars per year in perpetuity. Since then, multi-millionaire Pepper has greased legislators’ palms to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to start and keep cash flowing to the failing institution. Read here the COAST story on the graft.

When the museum was originally promoted, it promised to bring one million visitors to Cincinnati from all over the world. Today, the Freedom Center attracts fewer than 62,000 paying visitors, and they are mostly children from the area forced to go there on school field trips. These visitors generate near-zero economic activity for the City, because they come and leave on school buses, not stopping to spend additional cash.

Read the COAST story here about the Freedom Center’s 2007 federal income tax return (the most recent available) that showed that the institution generated a mere $827,084 in ticket sale revenue. The Freedom Center originally received $55 million in public subsidy for its construction and has received more than $10 million in infusions of tax cash in just the last 36 months. Read the COAST story here about the Freedom Center’s continued waste of precious resources on over-paid executives.

Please contact your State Senator at the e-mail address (click name to mail) and/or phone number below to ask them to strip Freedom Center funding from the State budget bill.

State SenatorServing:Telephone
Eric KearneyCentral Hamilton County(614) 466-5980
Bill SeitzWest & North Hamilton County(614) 466-8068
Bob Schuler East Hamilton & Warren Counties(614) 466-9737
Tom Niehaus Clermont County(614) 466-8082
Gary Cates Butler County(614) 466-8072
Bill Harris Senate President(614) 466-8086

Your urgent action is needed to stop this shameful and continuing waste of our scarce tax dollars. Please call or write today.


  1. Can the success of a museum be determined solely by its attendance or economic impact? If the predicted levels of attendance and economic impact of the Freedom Center were based on the belief that The Banks would be finished by now, can you expect those numbers to still hold true without The Banks? What method does COAST propose the Freedom Center use to fund its operations over the next two years? How would the national perception of Cincinnati be affected if the Freedom Center were to close? Are arts and cultural institutions not appropriate recipients of government funding?

  2. Perhaps not "solely," but you have to admit those are pretty good indicators. If the reverse were true, and NURFC had blockbuster attendance and was bringing in loads of dollars, they would rightfully be bragging about their success, wouldn't they?

    UC's Economic Impact Study makes no mention of The Banks as a prerequisite to NURFC success. In fact, the study is very clear that NURFC was intended to be a stand-alone attraction that would produce the projected benefits by itself.

    NURFC's backers promised that after the initial capitalization of tax money it would be self-sufficient and operate without subsidy. COAST would simply like them to honor their promise.

    If it turns out they screwed up and built way too much building for their mission, or grossly overestimated their ability to attract people, then they need to admit their failure and reorganize themselves in a way that is fiscally sustainable. There are several viable options.

    They could consolidate operations into the Museums at Union Terminal to share overhead. We could find enough room, and cross traffic from other successful museums would also likely boost their attendance.

    They could simply shut down. Given the low interest by the public, and their inability to attract significant travelling exhibits, it's doubtful this would attract much notice beyond a page 4 blurb in a few papers.

    Or they could do what most other successful arts and cultural institutions in our area do, and seek public support through the vehicle of government by asking voters to approve a tax levy. From the beginning, NURFC has refused to reach out to the community at large, preferring instead to pick the public's pocket through back-channel political maneuvering.

    Voters around here are pretty generous, and smart too. If the NURFC had asked them first, it probably would have resulted in a smaller, more manageable museum, but the community would also have "had their back" because we all would have embarked down the same road together. Cutting voters out of the loop may ultimately prove to be a fatal cut.

  3. "Voters in the region spoke loudly and clearly on election day, rejecting five of eight levies on the ballot. Read the rundown here. COAST thinks that is three too few."

    Is that based on a detailed analysis of all 8 levies or a blanket position that all school levies are per se bad?


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