Watkins museum may move from downtown landmark

County considers agencies' financing needs during budget hearings

Douglas County commissioners are asking the Watkins Community Museum of History to cook up cost estimates for building renovations that could accommodate displays and programs for decades to come.

Or prompt a withdrawal from its historic home, a landmark former bank in downtown Lawrence.

“We need to see some numbers to determine if we stay there or go someplace else,” Commissioner Jere McElhaney said. “We just have to make some decisions. The Watkins museum is going to exist someplace, somewhere.”

The request for financial data came during the commission’s hearings this week on the county’s recommended $47.5 million budget for 2005.

Commissioners are hearing from more than a dozen agencies, departments and programs vying for financing as part of the budget. The draft document contains recommendations from Craig Weinaug, county administrator.

Among them: Hire three more corrections officers for the Douglas County Jail, and hire a coordinator for scattered data from geographic-information system (GIS) components in various county departments.

Commissioners also said they would finance a project to renovate the jail’s work-release section to accommodate medium-security inmates, an estimated $300,000 project designed to ease jail overcrowding.

Among the requests that haven’t made the cut: $12,500 for the Douglas County Historical Society to continue its latest drive to find grants, boost donations and secure a long-term financial future for the society and its museum.

The money would be used to extend the contract of Dick Martin, a former director of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Athletics Foundation. He’s been working to set financing goals, create a plan to achieve them and appoint committees to do the work.

The idea is to establish an endowment and help wean the society from relying so heavily on county taxpayers for help in running the museum.

“It’s going to be an uphill struggle to do what we need to do,” said Lew Phillips, a society board member.

But talk of the financing goals led to a discussion of the museum’s long-term future.

Rebecca Phipps, museum administrator, had asked Weinaug to include $25,000 in the budget to renovate the museum’s public rest rooms, which do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Weinaug didn’t recommend the expenditure, but the request prompted commissioners to think big.

Commissioner Jere McElhaney asked what else the society might need to do to get the museum building — the former Watkins National Bank, 1047 Mass. — into shape. That led to talk of adding a kitchen for $25,000 and installing new carpet for $10,000.

Among the other ideas: replace the building’s electrical system, transform part of a downstairs community room into a classroom and lounge, and revamp the building’s tall windows to protect exhibits from damage from ultraviolet rays.

“It’s a $100,000 project,” McElhaney said, of the growing list of needs.

Bob Piller, the society’s treasurer, said the board would crunch numbers and report back to commissioners. No timeline was set.

“There may be a point that … it’s counterproductive to put more money into that facility,” he said.

Commissioners resume budget hearings at 8:30 a.m. today at the County Courthouse, 1100 Mass.