Backers of a museum devoted to Oklahoma popular culture said they're still hopeful state lawmakers will approve $40 million for the project before adjourning in two weeks.
The Tulsa-based museum, dubbed OKPOP, has been in the works for years and would be dedicated to Oklahoma authors, musicians and actors, and their impact on popular culture. If funded, it could open in 2017 and draw 100,000 visitors a year, according to supporters.
The Senate budget committee narrowly approved a proposal Thursday that would divert money from state sales and use taxes over four years for the facility. But even with the committee's support, the larger hurdle is convincing enough lawmakers that the project would be a boon for Oklahoma.
The project wasn't taken up in the House last year and would likely face stiff opposition again. The Legislature is supposed to adjourn by May 31, but lawmakers have indicated they want to end the session next week.
House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, seemed hesitant to embrace spending state money on the museum, although he said he intended to discuss the proposal during a House GOP caucus meeting on Monday.
"As far as I know, it's just an idea," Shannon said. "I'll take a look at it. I haven't seen any language. It will be tough."
Several artists with Oklahoma ties or their estates — such as Leon Russell, Bob Wills and Ernie Fields Sr.— have already donated memorabilia to go in the 75,000-square-foot museum.
Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, who opposes OKPOP, said museums shouldn't come before funding the salaries of state troopers or other state employees.
"I don't think we've done the hard work of prioritizing, and I don't think museums rise to the level of priorities to spend state money on," Treat said.
The four-story building is planned for downtown Tulsa's Brady Arts District, a trendy section of the city that features restaurants, a sprawling community park and a recently opened museum devoted to the life and music of folk singer and Oklahoma native Woody Guthrie.
The Oklahoma Historical Society, which has lobbied on behalf of the project for years and would manage the museum, has assured lawmakers that the start-up funds would be matched with at least $16 million in private donations. The society also said the museum would be self-supporting through revenue generated by a planned 650-car parking garage and sales taxes, among other things.
"What is taking place in downtown Tulsa right now is phenomenal," said Mike Neal, president and CEO of the Tulsa Regional Chamber, which issued a study estimating the museum would have an impact near $18 million in its first year of operation. "The public and private sectors are working together to create a cultural area of galleries and museums primarily as a means to attract and retain workforce, but also to spur community development and pride in our community."
Building the museum is a chance to brand Oklahoma as "the crossroads of creativity," said Bob Blackburn, the historical society's executive director.
"I've never lost my faith we'll build this museum," Blackburn said. "I've never been associated with a project that has more grassroots support."