Begun as the brainchild of former Mayor Bruce Broadwater, plans for a Vietnam War Museum in Garden Grove could be abandoned after city council members last week questioned weak fundraising for the ambitious, city-subsidized project.
Although there has never been an official agreement between the city and the nonprofit Vietnam War Museum of America Foundation, the city has invested substantial time and resources toward the concept, including the purchase of a $2.46 million property in 2011 and up to $100,000 in estimated staff time each year.
But, after five years with just $64,798 in the bank toward the foundation’s $22 million fundraising goal, councilman Phat Bui called on the council to decide the project’s future soon, or consider abandoning it altogether.
“I’d love to see this project be successful, but if we do not have a path forward, I don’t see any meaning to continue to support that,” said Bui. “I am concerned it will not go anywhere…[and would] rather not push the burden on our taxpayers.”
Broadwater proposed the museum in 2008 after a personal trip to the National World War II museum in New Orleans. He sat on the volunteer board of the nonprofit foundation from the time of its incorporation in 2010 until Dec. 2014, when he stepped down after losing his reelection campaign.
A City Effort
Although the foundation is a separate entity from the city, which allows it to receive tax-exempt donations, the nonprofit is largely run by city staff with significant public investment in the project.
The city has kept no records of the free staff hours devoted to running the nonprofit, providing legal services and staffing its occasional events, including an annual golf tournament at the Willowick Golf Course, according to Community Services Director Kimberly Huy.
More than half of the $207,000 raised by the foundation comes from the city, with at least $110,000 in general fund dollars going toward the museum over the last 5 years, according to a staff report.
That has amounted to roughly $25,000 in contributions a year and $75,000 to $100,000 in staff time, Huy said.
The city also pays $157,973 a year in debt service for a 1.5 acre property and building on Harbor Boulevard, which its former Redevelopment Agency purchased in 2011.
The property, which sat vacant until 2013 when the city leased the building to California Fuels and Lubricants, was the frequent target of graffiti and property crimes. Thieves stripped copper wire, electrical panels and air conditioning units from the facility.
In 2012, a burst water pipe heavily damaged the first floor of the building, resulting in a minor insurance reimbursement for the city.
Now with a $1.56 million payment on the property due in Dec. 2016, the council voted May 26 to create a subcommittee — consisting of Christopher Phan and Kris Beard — to return in three months with options for the museum’s future.
Some of the city council’s efforts to fund and promote the project have been controversial.
In June 2013, the city council approved $27,000 in travel expenses so they could travel to Korea to visit Garden Grove’s sister city of Anyang. The trip included a layover in Hawaii, where council members visited World War II memorials as research for the Garden Grove museum.
Later that year, the council drew criticism for adding a new provision in a contract with the United Vietnamese Student Association Southern California, requiring the student group to contribute $75,000 to the Vietnam War Museum of America Foundation from the proceeds of the annual Lunar New Year Festival.
The student group ultimately moved the festival from Garden Grove Park to the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.
Annual tax filings and a 2014 bank statement for the Vietnam War Museum of America Foundation show most of the foundation’s fundraising events have been off-set by event expenses.
During the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the foundation spent $24,681 on a fundraising event, but raised only $14,310 for a net loss of $10,371, according to the nonprofit’s 2011 tax forms.
In 2014, the foundation raised $19,315 from its second annual golf tournament, but spent $14,196 putting on the event.
Its net income at the end of 2014 was $335.92, and the foundation currently has $64,798 in its bank account.
According to Huy, much of the foundation’s costs include several educational events, such as bringing “The Moving Wall” exhibit to Garden Grove and a speaker series. It also has major planning expenses for the project, including a contract with an architectural firm, LPA, to create a conceptual design for the museum; a contract with a marketing firm to create a website and a fundraising consultant to identify potential donors.
In 2010, the foundation — using a $25,000 contribution from the city’s contingency fund — also hired a consultant to conduct a feasibility study, which estimated the organization would need to raise $22 million to renovate the property and fund operational costs for three years.
The consultant also recommended the city employ a full-time staff member to work on the project and expand the board to as many as forty or fifty members in order to maximize fundraising opportunities, Huy said.
Interim City manager Allan Roeder said it’s common for cities to create nonprofits to fundraise for museums and cultural attractions, projects that are often too expensive for a city to fund outright.
“It’s not uncommon for these things to fall by the wayside when there are other priorities,” Roeder said.
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.