Georgia City Debates Using Sales Tax to Complete Construction of Museum

City officials and voters are debating whether Macon should seek $2.5 million in sales tax money to pay for completion of the Tubman African American Museum, a private enterprise that's sat unfinished for six year after it ran out of money.

It's a debate that could derail $190 million in sales tax funded construction projects for Macon that are part of a referendum on the ballot in November. The Telegraph reported Sunday that opponents don't want tax dollars spent on a privately owned museum.

"I think it's a deal killer," said Ed Watt, a retired Macon salesman, who says he'll vote against the entire package if money for the Tubman gets included. "I don't think the government should be in that type of business."

Construction on the 49,000-square-foot museum came to a halt in 2005 after the museum's developers ran out of money. About $12.5 million had been invested in the downtown building, which includes a copper dome modeled after an African chieftain's helmet.

Opposition to the city bailing out the project worries some officials because the museum money would account for only about 1.3 percent of the total being sought for projects funded by a special local option sales tax.

"It doesn't make sense to have that kind of venom or that kind of vitriol when you're talking about a very, very minute portion of the SPLOST," said City Council President James Timley.

Andy Ambrose, the museum's executive director, says the Tubman has raised another $5 million. Getting $2.5 million more from the city, Ambrose said, would give the museum enough to resume construction and enable the museum to open.

But that's still not enough money to completely finish the job. That would require up to $2.5 million more to finish all the exhibition spaces, which could be done in stages. Staffing could also be ramped up over time, Ambrose said.

"We realize as well that the downturn in the economy has changed the picture, and that's why we're not planning to operate at full bore to start with," Ambrose said.

The Tubman has struggle, even with a $250,000 annual subsidy from Bibb County. Tax filings show it spent $904,040 in 2009, while bringing in just over $160,000 from tours, festivals and classes and membership dues. Its budget also heavily relies on other contributions and grants.

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said he hopes controversy over including tax money for the Tubman museum in the ballot package won't split the community. He said theTubman is critical to economic development in the downtown area, where the unfinished museum has too long been an eyesore.

"I think most people would agree we've got to do something with the existing Tubman building," Reichert said. "You can't just board it up and leave it. It detracts from what we're trying to do downtown. Completed, open, it serves as an addition to what we're trying to do."

But some Macon voters say they're dubious the museum will help turn around the city's struggling economy.

Angel Watts, a 35-year-old collections worker, said she's also dubious of paying more taxes and plans to vote against the entire $190 million package.

"I don't see it bringing enough tourists," Watts said of the museum.