Smithsonian Repairs Need Cash Infusion

Posted December 12, 2007 at 6:29pm

A public-private partnership is perhaps the only way to fund the $2.5 billion needed for extensive maintenance and repair projects at the Smithsonian Institution, Senators who oversee the institution said on Wednesday.

But at a Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing, Members also said they plan to work with Smithsonian officials to find a way to raise the cash.

Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) officially announced she is working to create a $45 million matching program for the Smithsonian’s maintenance needs, which would allocate $15 million in federal funds to the Smithsonian for every $30 million the institution raises specifically for maintenance projects.

“It will be impossible — and I don’t like that word impossible — to close the institution’s $2.5 billion facilities and maintenance backlog with federal funding alone,” Feinstein said. “We all need to be more creative.”

There is general agreement that some of the facilities housing the Smithsonian’s exhibits are in serious need of a face-lift, and experts have warned that artifacts could suffer serious damage if repairs aren’t made soon.

For example, the seal and sea lion pools at the National Zoo leak an average of 110,000 gallons of water every day, costing taxpayers $297,000 a year, according to a Government Accountability Office report. Historic airplanes have rusted at the National Air and Space Museum’s storage facilities because of a lack of temperature and humidity controls, and at the National Museum of African Art, crews were forced to cover a skylight with plastic to protect rainwater from damaging collections.

Repairing damages such as these — and preventing further deterioration — is expected to cost more than $2.5 billion over the next decade, according to Smithsonian estimates.

And that doesn’t even include the estimated $200 million needed to repair and reopen the damaged Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, which has been closed since 2004, or the estimated $400 million that will go to fund construction of the National Museum of African-American Culture, officials said.

Since a 2005 GAO report first found infrastructure issues at the Smithsonian, officials have made progress to better manage Smithsonian properties, said Mark Goldstein, the GAO’s director of physical infrastructure issues. But Goldstein also warned that problems remain and that the Smithsonian’s board of regents might not have fully explored all of its fundraising options to bring in the cash needed for repairs.

“There may be an issue of the cart before the horse,” Goldstein said.

Smithsonian officials denied those claims. The board of regents is looking at a number of ways to raise money, from launching a national fundraising campaign to charging special exhibition fees to expanding collection boxes at facilities, said Robert Kogod, the chairman of the board’s facilities revitalization committee.

Kogod noted that getting donations for infrastructure needs isn’t easy. Donors most often want their money to go to exhibits rather than to repair leaky roofs, he said.

“We will do what we can,” he said.

Feinstein noted that although raising cash for infrastructure needs is difficult, it isn’t impossible. Feinstein recalled that when she was mayor of San Francisco, the city’s famous cable cars were in disrepair and no government funds could be found to fix them. So, city residents raised the money themselves.

“I believe the same would be true of donors to the Smithsonian Institution,” she said. “What good are donations to exhibits if the buildings that house them are crumbling?”

Cristián Samper, the acting secretary of the Smithsonian, said he supports Feinstein’s idea of a matching fund and will work to get private donations.

“This is a wonderful start, and I know that if we do well with the private matching fund” the committee will continue the program, Samper told the committee.

Ranking member Bob Bennett (R-Utah) cautioned against any major new additions to the Smithsonian. After all, even an additional square foot of space will require upkeep, he said.

Feinstein agreed, adding that it might be necessary to enact legislation that would require all new Smithsonian buildings to get the approval of the Rules panel.

“Somewhere, we’ve got to put our foot down,” Feinstein said. “We’ve go to say: ‘We can’t continue to build, build, build until the maintenance is on an even keel.’”

Feinstein did push Samper to work to reopen the Arts and Industries Building, which is the second-oldest Smithsonian building and is situated next to the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall.

“Every day I drive by the Arts and Industries Building,” Feinstein said. “And every day, I think what a shame it is.”

Reopening the building remains a top priority, Samper said.

“I park next to that building everyday, and it hurts me to see it,” Samper said.