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City Questions Viability of Civil War Museum

Ft. Wright city council and the James A. Ramage Civil War Museum are at odds over the museum's future.

About a dozen volunteers who support the Ft. Wright-based museum attended Wednesday's city council meeting, highlighting the museum's benefits and questioning whether the city intended to see it closed.

Bernie O'Bryan spoke to council about how the museum is working to secure more funding and how it is trying to survive. He argued that the museum has always done what is asked of it by the city, and said that it was currently in the black financially.

Mayor Dave Hatter questioned that assertion, suggesting that the museum would not be self-sufficient and would not survive without assistance from the city. Insurance for the museum, Hatter said, increased from $2,400 to $2,700.

"I have lived here 50 plus years and the plan has been for the museum to be self sufficient all along," Hatter said. "Is the museum viable? My answer is no."

Randy Burnett, an auctioneer who is supportive of the museum, expressed his worry that the museum would close.

"If money is a problem, we can do something about that," he said, alluding to his abilities as an auctioneer and to raise funds. "We can make it better!"

David Moore, a volunteer from Erlanger, noted that his own city recently changed its relationship with the Erlanger Depot Museum, assuming full responsibility for it from the historical society. He warned that the decision could bite Erlanger council eventually.

"Don't throw us under the bus," Moore pleaded. "Give us a chance!"

Jan Mullikin, of Florence, said that her son lives in Ft. Wright and that she regularly brings her grandsons to the museum.

Bob Langendorfer, an instructor at Northern Kentucky University, said that the museum's namesake, James Ramage, still writes book in his nineties, and argued that the museum is a resource and of value to the community.

He warned that once it is lost, it could be lost forever.   

Langendorfer suggested that the grounds of the museum could be used for other pursuits, such as disc golf, but he said that this is something the whole community would regret losing.

The museum is within Battery Hooper Park, which is about fourteen acres.

The park and the fortification for which the city is named are both derived from the region's effort to hold off invading Confederate forces from making their way across the Ohio River in 1863 in what was known as the Defense of Cincinnati.

The museum had previously utilized a neighboring church's parking lot but that site, which is in Covington, is currently being developed. Now visitors have to find a place to park elsewhere.

Council members joined the mayor in expressing concern about the viability of the museum.

Councilman Jay Weber suggested that the museum register with the state tourism commission.

Councilman Scott Wall asked the volunteers about a parking lot, which is estimated to cost around $250,000. 

"You guys clearly can't pay for it," Wall stated.

Councilman Dave Abeln said that there is not a shared vision on the future of the museum and that it must be self-sustaining. Abeln said that he is not in favor of bandaged support from the city.

City Administrator Jill Bailey said that even with the annual Battery Hooper Days event, the museum's largest fundraiser, the museum only nets about $300 after expenses are paid.

The museum, she said, is running at a lows and has been for the past few years.

O'Bryan countered that, saying that the museum is paying the expenses.

"We have a $9 million budget," Hatter said of the city. "Why are we in the museum business? I guarantee you we have lost money on this!"

Councilman Bernie Wessels thanked the volunteers for their work but argued that the museum has no direction and needs a master plan. He said that the building itself is in bad shape and could use as much as $300,000 in repairs, or could be torn down.

The building is not listed on any historic register.

Mayor Hatter said that this conversation was like one from ten years ago and asked whether council would continue to kick the can down the road. He said that there had to be a deadline.

Councilwoman Margie Witt agreed that there needed to be a deadline and asked for a plan that would not be reliant on tax dollars.

Wessels said that he would be in favor of using some of the city's contingency fund, looking for a consultant, and giving the museum six months to figure it out.

Hatter said that if there is going to be a deadline, it needed to be realistic and offered up a timeline of a year. Wessels agreed.

"You have to think outside the box and do this right," Wessels said. "We're going to throw this in your lap, and if this doesn't work out, I'm going to pull the plug, too."

Wessels asked that any work conducted by the museum under the auspices of the city, needs to be shared with the city administrator.

"I love the museum," Councilman Wall said. "But we are looking at cold, hard realities."

In other business, council approved the Monarch Friends Project to plant orange and pink milkweed along the Nature Center walkway and the I-275 ramp to feed Monarch butterflies.

A special presentation was made to former city treasurer Susan Ellis, who is leaving the city to work at the City of Covington. Mayor Hatter presented her with a token of appreciation, as well as a proclamation.

-Patricia A. Scheyer, RCN contributor

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