PORT ANGELES — The Clallam County Historical Society museum has a new lease on life and could be reopened in May.
The Museum at the Carnegie, located in the city-owned historic Carnegie Library, was in an extended seasonal closure and was in danger of shutting down permanently until the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe offered to take over the historical society’s $1-a-year building rental agreement with the city.
The City Council approved the lease transfer Tuesday in a 4-2 vote on the recommendation of Nathan West, community and economic development director, and Corey Delikat, director of parks and recreation.
In leasing the 97-year-old building at 207 S. Lincoln St., the tribe also will take on the utility payments that were breaking the organization’s bank, Kathy Estes, historical society executive director, said Wednesday.
“We are happy about it, particularly because they are interested in maintaining the museum aspect of it on the upper level,” said Estes, the organization’s only paid employee.
“It would have been difficult to remain open.”
Councilman Lee Whetham, who voted against the transfer, said the change should be discussed in a public hearing.
He said other organizations should have a chance to rent the building and continue to keep the museum open as the tribe has pledged to do in taking on the remaining years of the 20-year agreement.
Councilman Michael Merideth also voted against the transfer, while Councilwoman Sissi Bruch, a tribal planner, recused herself.
Councilmen Patrick Downie, Dan Gase and Brad Collins as well as Deputy Mayor Cherie Kidd voted for the new lease arrangement, which expires in December 2023.
Estes said the museum was in trouble.
The annual typical December-February closure had been extended through March and into April.
“We had made a decision that there weren’t enough visitors coming in, and the utility bills were extremely high,” Estes said.
“We had quite a bit of trouble finding volunteers to keep the place open,” Estes said.
She said she hopes the museum will reopen at the beginning of May but needs to discuss the schedule with tribal CEO Michael Peters.
“My understanding is that the building will be open more hours and more days,” Estes said.
Peters and tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles were unavailable for comment Wednesday.
Estes said that, as part of the lease arrangement, the tribe will set up staff office space on the Carnegie Library’s first floor, which currently contains museum office furniture and exhibit cases.
She said that diminishes the need for the historical society to staff the building as its sole occupant.
Seven permanent exhibits — one describing the North Olympic Peninsula’s Native American heritage — are located on the second floor.
“The exhibits are self-explanatory when you walk through them,” Estes said.
The historical society also owns property at the corner of Eighth and C streets that once housed Lincoln School, which was built in 1916 and closed in 1978.
The property includes a small building that houses the organization’s research library.
The historical society, founded in 1948, is funded by memberships and donations and does not receive city or county funds.
“Trying to be in so many places was really starting to be a strain,” Estes said.
She said two other groups, both local and both nonprofit, were interested in taking over the lease.
One was willing to consider taking over only maintenance, while the other wasn’t interested in maintaining the building at all, Estes said.
Estes said she had not spoken with Whetham about other groups’ interest in leasing the site.
At the council meeting Tuesday, Whetham said he was concerned that other groups could provide the same opportunity as the tribe for the exhibits to remain open but were not given the chance.
“Maybe we get longer hours, maybe we get something more,” he said.
But Gase, a real estate agent, said under the lease terms, the historical society could do what it wanted.
“We don’t have the ability to go in and take control over someone else’s lease terms,” Gase said.
City Attorney Bill Bloor agreed but said the council could hold a hearing anyway.
Kidd lamented that the museum’s hours last year had to be reduced to four hours a day three or four days a week.
“They really need to have a synergistic relationship where it can be open 8 to 5,” she said.
“This is actually a very clear way of keeping our museum open, keeping our building and having it available after the lease is up.”
Whetham, once concerned that lease terms of $1-a-year rent constituted a gift of public funds, said the city attorney’s office had alleviated his worry.
Heidi Greenwood, senior assistant city attorney, said in a memo to the council that the lease was not a gift of public funds because there was no intent to donate the space.
“The [Lower Elwha Klallam tribe] has agreed to host the Historical Society’s exhibits and displays,” she said in her written analysis of the transaction.
“The city will receive the benefit from having the building open to the public and added security of having the building open and in use.”
________Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.