Garden Grove Council Growing Impatient With Vietnam War Museum

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Members of the Garden Grove City Council are giving organizers of the proposed Vietnam War Museum of America four weeks to come up with a detailed plan for weaning their foundation off taxpayer funds, or risk losing city support altogether.

At a subcommittee meeting Tuesday night, the foundation’s treasurer, Lou Carlson, and acting president, Peter Katz, pitched a two-year timeline to grow the foundation’s board, hire a fundraising expert and build a preview center for the museum on Harbor Boulevard.

The foundation would grow its board by forty members, recruiting well-connected and wealthy individuals who would be contractually obliged to invest in the museum, Carlson said.

But while their plan set ambitious goals, council members were skeptical of whether they would materialize.

Since 2010, the city has contributed an estimated $125,000 annually to the foundation, plus a $157,973 annual debt payment for a building on Harbor Boulevard, which wasn’t slated for a museum when it was purchased in 2011 but has since become the de facto location for the project.

Also, a $1.56 million balloon payment, which would finish off the remaining debt on the property, is due in December 2016.

Seen by many as a pet project of former Mayor Bruce Broadwater, residents and the new City Council have expressed concern about city staff time and general fund dollars going toward the foundation, which to date has just $63,000 to its name.

Councilman Chris Phan, who sits on the subcommittee with Councilman Kris Beard, said he would be comfortable supporting the foundation for one more year if they could show a robust fundraising effort.

But Phan wasn’t impressed by the foundation’s two-year timeline, which would eliminate the city’s $25,000 cash contribution to the organization but still lean on city staff.

“I want to take the load off of staff. I get the sense that the foundation has relied heavily on staff over the years and sort of lost its own direction,” Phan said. “To put it bluntly, staff has been overburdened for what has been the foundation’s role.”

When Carlson asked the two council members to set a threshold for a first year fundraising goal, Beard said that the foundation needs to be more proactive and asked for a detailed strategy.

“You tell us what you can do,” Beard said. “I don’t see a line item budget. I need a realistic business plan. We need to see where we are going with this.”

Beard and Phan asked the foundation to return with a detailed plan and fundraising goal for another subcommittee meeting on Aug. 17. They will present that plan to the full city council on Aug. 25.

Katz and Carlson, who have been leading the museum effort, called for patience from city leaders, saying that any effort to launch a museum takes time. Carlson argued that a two-year plan to slowly phase out city support would enable the foundation to make the most of the city’s investment so far.

By the end of the second year they could potentially take over the city-owned property on Harbor, Carlson said, and — with the help of the public works department –set up a preview center for the museum that would attract more donors.

“This is the option that we have sweated and talked and argued over, to make sure it’s something doable,” he said. “[The preview center] could be something people could visit in Garden Grove within a year and a half.”

Katz pointed to the Bowers Museum in neighboring Santa Ana, which was heavily subsidized by the city early on but has since grown more independent.

He also noted the use of hotel taxes in neighboring San Diego County to support museums and cultural programs.

Although council members have not needed to be convinced of the proposed museum’s merits, a few Vietnam War veterans, Vietnamese Americans and residents turned out for the meeting to show their interest in supporting the foundation.

Yet so far, none of the established nonprofit and community groups that have fueled fundraising in the Vietnamese American community have gotten behind the project.

“It will take somebody who the [Vietnamese] community trusts for people to get behind the project, but none of these guys can do that,” said Phan.

Greg Gillaspy, a veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, said fellow war veterans are following the city council’s actions closely. “Veteran after veteran has called me and asked, ‘have they given up on the war museum?'” he said.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.