Sunday, June 15, 2008


At our last meeting former Governor Douglas Wilder addressed the City Council in support of a request to provide the National Slavery Museum a three-year exemption on real estate taxes. The amount involved is $42,745.00 per year for a total exemption of $128,235.00. In his statement before Council Governor Wilder placed the request in the context of, “Either you want the museum here or not.”

Many I have talked to question why Governor Wilder would seem to be drawing a line in the sand over such a small amount of money in light of the over all cost of the project which now must be significantly higher than the original $200 million price tag established over six years ago. Some are asking whether the former governor is only looking for an excuse to take the project back to Richmond blaming the move, and lack of progress, on the city. I hope this is not the case as such a decision would be both unfortunate and unfair to Fredericksburg. The City has in fact tried to work with the Slavery Museum staff to move the project forward. Unfortunately this effort to form a working partnership has not been reciprocated.

In June of 2005 Council members were asked to respond to a March request by the National Slavery Museum to consider waiving construction fees. Comments by all members of the Council were positive. My comment was, "I don't think it's excessive (fee waivers) in comparison to the museum's potential to the community,"

The actual request for the fee waivers came before City Council at its meeting of July 12, 2005. Based on conversations held with other members of Council I moved to defer the vote on the fee waivers until we could have an update on the project provided by representatives of the museum. As I stated at the meeting, "We're not asking anything we haven't asked of any other organization that is asking for money."

The response to the City’s request for additional information was answered in a memo sent by museum Executive Director, Ms. Vonita Foster, to City Manager Phil Rodenburg. The request for fee waivers was withdrawn without explanation.

A few days later Ms. Foster responded to the Council’s action in an interview with the Richmond Times Dispatch in which she was quoted as saying, "We need partners who are visionary, fair and unbiased." She went on to imply that the museum many not be built in Fredericksburg. An E-mail was sent directly to Governor Wilder, again expressing support for the project, and requesting clarification of Ms. Foster’s statements. In part the e-mail stated, "I hope that the decision of the museum board to withdraw their request for fee waivers is not an indication that the information requested will not be forthcoming; or that the museum may be considering relocating as implied by your Executive Director in comments to the press."

There was no direct response from either Governor Wilder or museum staff. Instead, Ms. Foster did an interview with Adelphia Channel 3, the local Spotsylvania cable station, to announce that the museum would be built in Fredericksburg.

Prior to Council’s next meeting on July 28th I had what I thought was a good conversation with Ms. Foster and there seemed to be agreement for a meeting with the Council to provide a project update. At the next Council meeting Mrs. Girvan again suggested, as she did on July 12th, a meeting with the museum, which I endorsed.

A letter had been received from Ms. Foster stating that the museum had raised around $49 million, had picked a builder, and planned to open in 2007. It wasn’t much but it was a start and Council put a positive face on it hoping we had turned a corner. That thought came to an end when the answer came back on our request for a meeting. Again the answer came second hand a day or two later in a Free-Lance Star interview with Museum Assistant Mr. James Damron. When asked whether Ms. Foster was amenable to a meeting his response was, “We have no comment.”

What we did get was a visit from former Governor Wilder on July 29th for an invitation only press conference on the project, which was not open to the public. Only certain members of the Council were invited and the local press was ignored. I did, “crash” the event and was not turned away. It was not a venue for asking questions regarding infrastructure impacts etc. It provided information on what the project would look like but that was about it.

Even though the museum continued to balk at providing the City with information related to the project and its impacts, both positive and negative, City Council approved a variance for the project allowing for a height of 118 feet in a zone with a 90-foot height restriction.

The next time the Slavery Museum came to the forefront was in November 2005 in regard to the contract between the City and National Slavery Museum that resulted in the $1 million loan. The agreement stipulated that the money could not be spent directly on the museum but rather was a contract for “governmental services. " Those services involved completing road, traffic, and tourism studies related to the entire Celebrate Virginia project.

The breakdown of expenditures provided a list of big numbers but little detail. Over $500,000 went to cover administrative and personnel costs, $180,000 for workshops, articles, and websites, and $250,000 on preliminary plans and engineering. Only about $15,000 was spend on the studies outlined in the agreement. The response to requests by Council members for additional information and copies of the reports was predictable. The museum felt they had met their obligations and in regard to the studies, “Spokesman Michael J. Smith said museum officials "don't plan to release any of the reports." At the same time the museum requested that the City consider additional funding. "I believe the museum would like to keep the loan open-ended," Smith said.

Again the Council kept the door open to this request on condition that additional information on the loan, the reports produced, and the current status of the project were provided to the public.
Continued Council requests for a more detailed breakdown of the expenditures and for the studies brought about one of the strangest responses in this entire saga coming from former Governor Wilder—

“On Friday, museum founder and Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder was asked at a press conference about the difference between his push for more information from the nonprofit Virginia Performing Arts Center in Richmond and Fredericksburg City Council members' requests for more information about the Slavery Museum.

According to The Associated Press, Wilder said the difference is that in Richmond, the city administration has demanded an accounting, while Fredericksburg's city administration has not.”

The former Governor’s statement was that elected local officials could be ignored while at the same time refusing to acknowledge that the Fredericksburg “administration” WAS asking for more accountability at the request of those same local elected officials to who the City administration was accountable.

In an effort to resolve the impasse Mayor Tomzak and myself met in January 2006 with Ms. Foster at her office. We were shown the reports, thought Ms. Foster again insisted that they were not going to be released, and received a briefing on the project. Again a public presentation was requested, the possibility of adding a member of the Council to the Museum Board, and, due to the unique construction of the museum, a request to begin discussions with Building and Development Services as soon as possible, was discussed but no commitments were made.

It was agreed to meet again after the museum got through some planned fundraisers. My comment to the press after the meeting was, "We all realize we need to get beyond the current misunderstandings we are having in building a stronger relationship with the city and Slavery Museum."

The final required financial report from the Slavery Museum was received in April and there was no change from the previous report and there have been no follow-up meetings. What information that has been obtained has been through media sources outside the City as the museum staff continued to boycott the local media outlets.

Based on what information that has been provided, the National Slavery Museum will have a greater impact on the City, and region, than the Kalahari project. Museum representatives have claimed a million visitors a year. Yet while Kalahari went through a public review process, which included extensive staff review on impacts to City services, and continued cooperation between staff and the developer; the National Slavery Museum has yet to provide any usable information to help the City deal with the project impacts. Nor has the Fredericksburg community, who will have to deal with those impacts, been given an opportunity to have their questions answered or concerns addressed.

To date the “partnership” between the City and the National Slavery Museum has been one sided. Before the City gives any further consideration to requests for assistance the Slavery Museum must take concrete steps to keep the City and the community informed of developments to include benchmarks and timelines. In short, to provide information and establish a working relationship that would be expected of any project of this magnitude—a true partnership.

In regard to the request for tax-exemption my research of State Code and reviewing what other localities have done, confirms the position put forward by City staff. Under the Code of Virginia an exemption is considered an exception and exemptions are to be strictly construed. If there is any doubt about whether a property is qualified the issue must be resolved against the party claiming the exemption. In the case of vacant land there must be a stated, and documented, use of the property. The optimum word is use—not planned use.

In my view to state that on some undefined date a museum will be constructed on the site does not fall under the definition of use. If the Slavery Museum obtains an approved site plan, secures building permits, and begins construction they would then probably qualify for tax-exempt status.

When the Slavery Museum begins construction Council will be in a position to grant tax-exempt status that will represent a significant windfall to the museum. In the meantime there are other avenues to assist the Slavery Museum with staff and financial support. And I believe the Council is prepared to have those discussions.

The Council has supported the National Slavery Museum by both its words and actions. Even after being rebuffed in our efforts to obtain information on a project that will have a significant impact on the region the Council continued to take steps—the height variance—to move the project forward. It is now time for the National Slavery Museum to show its commitment to this community in which we hope they will soon be calling home.


Bryan said...

Matt, maybe you can shed some light on the Museum's property assessment. Prior to 2007, the total assessment was about $380k per year according to the online city records. In 2007 (and 2008) it was increased to $7.6M.

According to the records, the Museum was paying what appears as the full tax bill of $2k. Then the records show an increase to the $40k+ being discussed now.

MATT KELLY said...

BRYAN—Assessments are based on the best use of the land under its zoning classification at the time it was assessed. When first assessed the Slavery Museum land was evaluated under the R-1 classification—one residence per acre—which is one of our least intensive zoning classifications. When it went through another assessment 4-years later it was assessed under its new zoning classification PDC—Planned District Commercial—our most intensive commercial zoning classification.

This explains the increase in value and taxes paid. As you have pointed out, the current value on the land is listed by the City as $7.6M. When the Silver Cos. first donated the land they placed the value at $15M and, as per the recent article in the Free-Lance Star, the Slavery Museum is now claiming a value of $17.4M.

The difference in the City’s assessment and that of the Silver Cos./Slavery Museum's is the reason I abstained in my vote in hiring Blue Ridge Appraisal Service to handle our last assessment. When they assessed the Celebrate VA property for the first time under the PDC zoning it was thought that the assessment was very low. Unfortunately, Blue Ridge was the only firm to submit a bid to complete the assessment.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone really believe there is going to be a slavery museum on that spot? If so, there are some hedge funds my uncle Fred would like to sell you. Council should be engineering a face saving sayonara, rather than wasting time and energy on a mismanaged project that has zero chance of fruition.

Anonymous said...

When it stops flopping around at the bottom of the boat and begins to smell - its time to throw it overboard!

Janine said...

When I first moved here in 2004, I was excited about the museum, but now I am not. In fact, since Mr. Wilder's visit, I am dead set against any type of financial help from the City of Fredericksburg until the museum is completed and up and running. Ms Foster does not seem to be one that knows how to build bridges with a community and seems green at her job at best. I can't imagine many other organizations that would allow a person to stay in the job as she has and show no results, have a broken relationship with the city and not be able to even produce a project plan.

Is this a for-profit museum? Will there be fees collected upon entering the museum or will it be free to the public and make money off of exhibits that travel the country?

Before the citizens of Fredericksburg are asked to provide money to an organization that has provided nothing to us and can't even tell us when it will provide something to us, I think we should think long and hard about what we expect in return.

Before we consider providing aid to a for-profit business, that business must agree to several open-forum, question and answer meetings to satisfy the citizens that will be paying the bill.

I say our police, fire/rescue, city employees, and teachers are provided raises before we provide tax breaks or any financial assistance to a museum that may or may not be constructed.

Please hold public hearings on this before a tax break is granted, please insist that Ms. Foster briefs the citizens of Fredericksburg before we are made to "pay" a penny to a museum organization that seems to have little regard for the local community and then has the nerve to ask for money from us.

If Mr. Wilder takes our demand for information sharing and concrete plans as reason to take the museum and this poorly run operation elsewhere, than let him. I would rather have an up front operation with leaders that want to work with the community and looks forward to being a part of Fredericksburg. Let them sell the land and work on getting another tourism attraction with leadership that is professional and provides results.

I don't think we have been unreasonable. Based on our current communication with Ms Foster and the museum organization, I would hate to see what the future relationship would be.

Let them sell the donated land on which they find it so hard to construct a museum and move where they feel they can find a community that will put up with their poor business practices. We, the citizens of Fredericksburg deserve to have an organization that is willing to partner with the city citizens, not demand money from them. Yes, Mr. Wilder and Ms. Foster, the citizens will have to pay more property tax to make up for that which you are not charged, so we will have to pay… contrary to some points of view, there is not some magical government tree from which money grows… it all comes from taxes in the end…

Please, Matt, do not let any decision be made on any financial assistance without a public hearing and public presentation by the museum organizers.

Thank you for your consideration.