Tug-of-war for the museum 

Between the Lines

They sat together Monday morning, intermingled at three tables, supposedly sharing the same problems and priorities.

The Colorado Springs City Council and El Paso County Board of Commissioners have had their differences, but it seemed this time could be different. After all, they came into this special joint meeting, requested and hosted by the county, with only one agenda item: saving the Pioneers Museum.

There was just one problem. The commissioners thought the councilors knew what was coming. But unless the city leaders have the world's best poker faces, they had no idea. So, when the county put forth its plan — let the city continue operating the museum, but with the county maintaining the building and taking title to the majestic former courthouse — the shock and disbelief were palpable. Or, as some put it, visceral.

To this onlooker, the county picked a fight, and threw the first punch, without knowing it. Perhaps the city realized the county wanted to help save the museum from being mothballed, but not for the price of giving up title to the 100-year-old building.

"We're hearing this for the first time," Councilor Darryl Glenn said.

"This is hitting all of us cold," Randy Purvis chimed in.

That reaction was equally stunning to the commissioners.

"It's not a surprise," Sallie Clark said. "It has been discussed at the staff level for some time."

"We've been having these discussions since long before 2C failed," Jim Bensberg added. "It's hard to believe they didn't know."

This was the county's idea, so it made sense that County Administrator Jeff Greene was on the same page with commissioners. But with City Council so immersed in its 2010 budget, City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft hadn't shared details of the county's proposal — especially the part about handing over a historic building.

Given that, one could see how the councilors felt so offended. To them, the county officials were vultures swooping in for a meal.

"We didn't hear anything from them 18 months ago when they were hurting so badly that they were talking about selling their parks," Vice Mayor Larry Small said. "Now they're better off and so they want us to give them the building. Why should we do that?"

There were sharp-edged comments from the other side as well.

"My reaction today was, 'Look, this is our proposal. What's yours?'" Bensberg said. "And they didn't have any ideas. They just want us to give them money. Well, we sold it to them for a dollar, and now we'd like to have it back."

In 1973, the county was ready to tear down that old courthouse — until the city agreed to preserve it. Now, 36 years later, the county has had a change of heart. As Greene put it, "It's a chance for us to rectify past mistakes."

That doesn't sit well with the city. And now Clark and Glenn are squarely in the middle, heading a joint task force charged with finding more ways for the county and city to work together.

"I just hope we aren't just all close-minded about it," Clark said. "This is a chance for a burden to be lifted off the city. We just need to put our territories and egos aside for a moment."

Considering the strong reactions of Councilors, and of several volunteer museum leaders led by Mary Mashburn who vehemently oppose the county reclaiming the building, the odds of a new feel-good alliance are slim. Instead, the county's idea might have the opposite effect.

Small verbalized it after the meeting, as the two sides clustered separately.

"We're not broke," Small said firmly. "We've got $17 million in reserves, and we haven't touched any of it. Maybe we need to dip into those reserves and keep the museum alive until we come up with another solution." Others on Council, standing nearby, seemed to agree.

So perhaps this nudge from the county will push the city to change its budget at the last minute and avoid shutting down the Pioneers Museum.

"If that's what saves it, and they come up with their own money, that's fine," Bensberg said. "We don't care how it gets done."

Even though everyone wants the same outcome, nobody deserves all the credit for preserving the treasure that is the Pioneers Museum.

And this won't be a model for how the city and county might someday get along, either.



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