Douglas County historical societies band together for ARPA request, aiming for increased accessibility

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

The Watkins Museum of History is pictured Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.

With the help of more than $700,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding, Douglas County’s six historical societies are hoping to make their sites around the county more accessible for visitors.

The team of six historical societies — the Clinton Lake, Douglas County, Eudora Area, Lecompton and Santa Fe Trail historical societies and the Black Jack Battlefield Trust — submitted a joint funding request during the county’s ARPA request process and ultimately was awarded $723,539 to cover capital expenses for a variety of projects at sites throughout the county.

“At least for me, this is the largest single grant that I have ever secured … in a little bit over 11 years (with the historical society),” Steve Nowak, the executive director of the Douglas County Historical Society, told the Journal-World Wednesday afternoon. “The reality is, this is awful close to $1 million, and that’s just fundraising on a scale that none of the heritage agencies have been able to do. By working together, we were able to really have an impact that is more significant than we do as individual organizations.”

For the most part, there’s a theme to the group of projects — accessibility. Projects at Clinton Lake’s Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum, the Watkins Museum of History and the Santa Fe Depot, for example, will add Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant restrooms either through renovations or new construction. The Wakarusa project will add those spaces through a building expansion.

Other projects also have this aim in mind; chair lifts providing access to the basement and second floor at the Territorial Capital Museum in Lecompton are being replaced, as one example, and a roughly 40-year-old elevator at the Watkins Museum will be renovated for better accessibility. At Black Jack Battlefield, the funding will allow for the construction of an environmentally responsible parking area and regrading at the entry point to the battlefield and nature park. Nowak said that will preserve the landscape while also making the site more accessible for touring groups like field trips; the site currently can’t accommodate buses entering the property, so vehicles such as those have to unload on the road.

“We really wanted to build a proposal that would have impact in a positive way for the residents of Douglas County,” Nowak said. “… All of us, we share the mission to preserve and also to engage the public with Douglas County’s heritage. And we all have barriers that prevent that from being as effective as possible, and a lot of them are preservation or access issues that can only be resolved with capital projects.”

Beyond that, the rest of the projects that will be funded are geared toward renovations, like a roof replacement at the Eudora Community Museum, a restoration of the Watkins Museum’s ground floor windows, or the reconstruction of a missing bell tower at the Clearfield Schoolhouse.

Nowak said the group’s overall estimate for needs in the first version of its proposal was around $1.3 million, nearly double the amount the county’s historical societies were actually awarded. That meant reassessing which projects were most important to complete sooner, and also which ones had a higher likelihood of being completed within two years, because federal requirements specify that ARPA funds must be spent by the end of 2026. Some of the projects left out of the final proposal approved by the County Commission include funding to build a visitors center at Black Jack, which Nowak said the trust is working to raise funds for independently now, and exterior restorations at the Watkins Museum.

The Douglas County Historical Society served as something of a “collecting point” for the proposal process, Nowak said, and will continue to take that role as projects begin to roll out. That’s because half of the group — the Clinton Lake, Lecompton and Santa Fe Trail historical societies — are all volunteer-run, making it difficult to obtain and spend federal grant money. That means the Watkins Museum’s accounting system and other elements of the organization’s experience working with contractors will come into play while it helps to make the process smoother for the volunteer-run agencies, Nowak said.

It’s a process that was already familiar, thanks to how the six historical societies worked together when applying for an earlier round of pandemic aid funding granted through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Nowak said that experience helped the group realize it was more successful when thinking as a collective, rather than six separate agencies.

“We learned how to work together there, and how to kind of figure out where our common ground was,” Nowak said.

Given the scale of projects on the list like the Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum addition, it’s harder to establish a timeline for when exactly the work will be complete, Nowak said. But other projects — like the Eudora museum roof and Black Jack parking lot, to name two examples — will be ready for work to begin right away. Nowak said the more complicated projects will roll out at different times throughout the next two years.


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