Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Peace Declared: City, Civil War Museum reach accord on artifacts, rent.

Gene Barr, a board member of the National Civil War Museum, speaks at a press conference today announcing a deal with the city.

Harrisburg’s mayor and a city museum have put aside their contentious past in a deal that would give the museum ownership of its permanent collection.

At a press conference today, Mayor Eric Papenfuse and board members of the National Civil War Museum outlined an agreement in which the city would sell the collection to the museum for $5.25 million and begin to charge the museum rent.

“My goal has always been to reach an agreement in the city’s best interest, and I believe this is in everyone’s best interest,” Papenfuse said.

This agreement seems to resolve a longstanding dispute between the city and the museum board.

After becoming mayor in 2014, Papenfuse strongly objected to deals reached under former Mayor Steve Reed that allowed the museum to display the city-owned artifacts at no cost and that charged the museum just $1 a year in rent for the city-owned building, even while the city remained on the hook for building maintenance and repair.

The new agreement addresses both those issues.

First, the city would sell the artifacts to the museum for $5.25 million. In turn, the city would put $1 million into a reserve fund to pay for capital improvements to the building, which the city would continue to own. The other $4 million would pay for improvements to Reservoir Park, where the museum is located.

Under the deal, the museum has five years to raise the $5.25 million to purchase about 25,000 artifacts. If it fails to raise the money within that time, the city would be allowed to sell 20 percent of the museum’s collection.

Papenfuse acknowledged that $5.25 million is below the retail value of the artifacts, which were not appraised for purposes of the agreement. But said he believed the price was in the best overall interest of both parties.

“The museum now will have a legitimate path forward to sustainability,” Papenfuse said.

The $5.25 million figure, he said, was arrived at through negotiation, taking into account the amount of money the museum could reasonably raise.

He added that it was unknown exactly how much Reed paid for the artifacts, given poor recordkeeping, but that it likely exceeded $10 million. The market for Civil War memorabilia has generally softened since Reed bought most of the artifacts in the late 1990s, he added.

The agreement also outlines a graduated schedule for the payment of rent.

For the first five years, the museum would pay the city $45,000 per year in rent. However, no money would change hands, as the cumulative amount over that period almost equals the amount of money that the museum claims it is owed by the city for unreimbursed building maintenance and repair costs dating back to 2009.

“We’re going to credit that initial rent in the five-year period,” Papenfuse said.

The rent then would increase incrementally, capping off at $100,000 per year for 10 years starting in 2029.

The museum’s board of directors approved the deal last week. Before the agreement can take effect, Harrisburg City Council also must OK it.

“It took us a long time to be here, but I think we realize that this made a heck of a lot of sense for both (parties),” said Gene Barr, a museum board member.

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