I am writing to express my concern and opposition to the planned closure of the Ward Museum and the transfer of its contents to an as yet to be prepared space on West Main Street in downtown Salisbury. I do so as someone who has worked at Salisbury University and has been a supporter of the Ward Museum. I also do so as a local Salisbury native, having graduated from Wicomico Senior High School and am now a local resident.
As you may have learned, I began a petition to Save the Ward Museum at Schumaker Pond, Salisbury, Maryland. Within several days of its launching, it now has surpassed 3,700 signatures. It is a measure of how much the current course of action is misplaced.
Much has been made regarding the outbreak of a mold infestation at the Museum last July when the HVAC system failed. That failure was quickly repaired within several days. The system has since been operating at normal levels. A factor that has caused the University to announce the move is the expense of replacing the boiler and related maintenance. The boiler is now some 30 years old and needs replacement to avoid future HVAC failure.
Following the failure of the HVAC system, Ward Museum officials hired an outside consulting firm to estimate the cost of fixing the system and to replace the boiler. That estimate is approximately $275,000. This figure is considerably less than reports of three to five million dollars associated with public communications at Salisbury University regarding repairs of the Ward Museum. What makes this problematic is that the cost of renovating a downtown storage and display space has been estimated at upwards of $900,000. Together with only the Museum’s internal estimate of $275,000, the total cost of a move could easily approach $1,000,000 or more.
Expenses aside, the Ward Museum’s 38,000 square feet includes some 14,000 square feet of display space in a uniquely designed building. In contrast, the proposed downtown space does not reflect the unique environmental setting of the Ward Museum and its associated nature walk on Schumaker Pond. The downtown location would have only some 5,000 square feet of which only some 1,500 square feet would be available for display of the wildfowl art collection. Spending over three and a half times the money for ten percent of the space just does not make any economic sense.
I know that Salisbury State College, as it was then known, was instrumental in housing the original Ward Brothers decoy collection. Over time, as the collection grew, space became an issue. That led to a public-private partnership resulting in the construction of the current multi-million dollar museum now on Schumaker Pond. For years, this partnership worked well until the Museum was unable to underwrite both its operating costs and the debt service incurred in its construction. In 1990, an agreement signed between the State of Maryland and the Ward Museum transferred ownership to Salisbury State University as an agent of the University System of Maryland. In exchange for the transfer, Salisbury State University would assume the $1.6 million in outstanding debt and major capital expenditures while the Ward Museum would retain responsibility for normal operating costs. Although the University has continued to make financial contributions to the Ward Museum, it has not renewed in writing its commitment for the past three years, to which it now has announced its decision to close the Museum at Schumaker Pond.
The Ward Museum is an iconic institution with a reputation that extends well beyond the Delmarva peninsula. It draws visitors from all 50 states and several countries abroad. It is featured regularly on tourism promotions, including what has been up to now a website sponsored by Salisbury University. To close the Museum and disperse its contents for a limited space downtown undermines the mission of both the Ward Foundation and the reputation of Salisbury University. I urge you to work toward a viable solution that can enable to Ward Museum to continue its mission at its present site on Schumaker Pond and in which the reputation of Salisbury University with a community commitment to the Museum is justly affirmed.
Phillip LeBel, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of Economics, Montclair State University
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