Thursday, June 07, 2007


Unfinished museum nearly grounded for lack of money

By Catherine Kozak
June 07, 2007

A bill that would have provided the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum $500,000 for
two years has not been moved in the General Assembly. DON BOWERS PHOTOS

Over two decades of planning, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum has come to embody what it is meant to interpret, inviting metaphors of survival and desperate struggle.

Instead of the seething seas and shifting shoals that destroyed thousands of ships off the Outer Banks, however, the yet-to-be-completed shipwreck museum on the tip of Hatteras Island has most lately been caught in the deadly doldrums of the state budget.

A bill that would have absorbed the museum into the state Department of Cultural Resources and provided $500,000 for two years for administrative costs has not been moved in the General Assembly, Rep. Tim Spear said Wednesday from his Raleigh office.

That means a proposal that could have rescued the museum from years of treading fiscal waters is likely to be dead by the end of session.

"It's just a competition for state funds," he said. "It's just a matter of priorities. I do know that under the House budget, we funded very few, if any, new local projects."

Spear, a Creswell Democrat and bill co-sponsor, said he is seeking state or private money from other pots for the museum.

"It's at a critical stage right now," he said. "It's difficult for them to continue to operate."

A feasibility study done last year by an ad hoc state committee determined that the museum is of statewide historical significance and represents a topic not adequately covered in other state institutions. Based on the study, the committee concluded that the museum would best fit within the Division of State History Museums.

Danny Couch, the museum's board chairman, said that it's more than stretched budgets that contributed to the state snub.

"To some extent, it's politics," he said. "North Carolina needs to stand up and acknowledge the maritime history we have in this state."

More than 2,000 shipwrecks lie off the coast of Hatteras and Ocracoke alone, said museum E xecutive D irector Joseph Schwarzer. When he arrived in 1995, it was thought that there were 1,000 wrecks off the entire North Carolina coast.

"It's a huge, huge cultural resource, both state and nationally," Schwarzer said.

The concept of the museum was born in 1986, not long after the discovery of the remains of the Civil War ironclad Monitor off Hatteras. The museum - partnered with the National Park Service, the owner of the 7-acre museum site - and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, broke ground in 1999.

Although the ship like exterior of the 19,000-square-foot building is complete, the interior - including the critical gallery space - is not. But even with limited exhibits, the museum has become a popular free attraction since it opened in 2003, with a total of 170,000 people visiting - 9,000 so far this year.

With $2.7 million more needed to complete the $7.3 million project, including about $1.2 million for the exhibits, Schwarzer said the state has only to gain by accepting the museum.

"We've proved our value and our worth to the state of North Carolina," he said. "I think we're becoming more and more a destination for tourism."

Schwarzer said it costs $270,065 annually to operate the museum. Right now, revenue is about $67,000 from museum vanity tags, $40,000 in donations and whatever else can be raised. It is not yet known what the profits from the newly purchased museum store will be.

Schwarzer concedes that the museum's future is uncertain beyond June.

"Right now, it's very much hand-to-mouth," Schwarzer said. "If there is no support forthcoming from the state, if there's no private support, then it will be difficult to stay open. Without money, you can't keep things rolling."


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