History Lessens

Trouble's a-brewin' at the museum north of town. Old-timers don't cotton to newcomers who want to turn the desert historical center into a Western theme park.

Pioneer has never had that luxury, and even though it bills itself as a "living history museum," calling it such is a stretch, Preisler says.

"It's really more of an open-air museum with a few living-history characters," Preisler says, adding that none of those characters, or those overseeing them, has ever been a bona fide historian. Then again, he says, Pioneer has never had the money to hire people with those kinds of pedigrees. And that's a problem when it comes to winning grants.

"The granting agency would say, 'Unless you can come up with a professional staff, we're not going to grant you,'" he says. "But we didn't have money to come up with the professional staff, which is what we needed the grants for. It was a circle."

The problem was compounded, Preisler says, by near-constant turnover on the 15-member board, with members leaving after short stints or failing to show up altogether. That made it all but impossible for Pioneer to instill a "professional museum attitude" in its directors and staff, Preisler says.

Another problem is that Pioneer sits on state land, and the rent it pays is tied to the value of that land. When the museum was established, the lease was set at $1 an acre, which likely reflected its worth, given that Phoenix ended well short of Northern Avenue. As late as 1986, the museum was paying the state only $1,400 each year.

In the intervening years, that picture has changed markedly. Phoenix now sprawls to within a mile of the museum, and an RV park has gone in practically at its gates. The land's value received a further substantial boost recently when developer Del Webb snatched up a good portion of nearby New River with plans to convert it into a master-planned community the size of Flagstaff.

In early 1996, the state began making preparations to raise the museum's lease. The state charges Pioneer roughly 10 percent of the land's value, plus a percentage of revenues. In Pioneer's case, state officials estimated the amount at $38,547--a sum which would have put the museum under.

Lafitte, who was still executive director then, went to the Legislature, where he argued that Pioneer was an invaluable educational asset for the state's school kids and deserved a break. Land officials, who had just granted a major break to silicon-wafer manufacturer Sumitomo Sitix, were unswayed, saying that their mandate was to make the most of the land trust. Officials did, however, agree to set the lease at $20,000 and give the museum a couple of years before it ramped up to the full $38,547.

By then, the Pioneer board--to save money--had already voted to shrink the operation from 550 acres to just 86 acres--enough land to contain all of its buildings. Lost, however, were hundreds of acres of trails, along with several mineralogical exhibits. For his part, Lafitte instituted drastic austerity measures. He cut back on waterings, for instance, and many of the plants at the site soon died off.

Despite his ignominious ouster, Lafitte sees his tenure as a success, saying that admissions were up during his last year.

"We had the best year in two decades the last year I was there," he says. "I think the museum, just the way it was--slowly but surely growing--could have survived into the next century because it was on an upswing."

Then why was he sacked?
"All I can tell you is that my ideas and the new board's ideas clashed," he says.

Mad Coyote Joe's real name is Joe Daigneault, though he prefers the handle of Mad Coyote Joe. He's written cookbooks on Southwestern cuisine, and he talks enthusiastically about an upcoming cooking gig on local TV. He describes himself as a "food personality" and a fund raiser par excellence, which, he says, was the main reason he was recruited to join the Pioneer board.

It was the loquacious Daigneault who brought Dennis Loveless to the board's attention and who orchestrated Lafitte's ouster. Loveless, like most of his predecessors, has no formal museum background, but he does have a wealth of organizational experience which, Daigneault says, the museum sorely lacked under Lafitte.

"I can respect what he [Lafitte] was trying to do--and I want to be real careful how I say this--but it was time for him to move on," Daigneault says.

Loveless was the right pick, Daigneault says, because he understands business and "he knows how to make the kinds of connections the museum needs to survive." In addition to serving as Pioneer's director, Loveless still runs his own bed and breakfast in Cave Creek. He has also headed--and helped establish--the Desert Foothills Land Trust, which seeks to preserve riparian areas in the Cave Creek-Carefree-New River area.

One of Loveless' first steps when he took over last year was to enlist Diane Helm, who first visited Pioneer during its heyday in 1975 while accompanying her daughter's grade-school class on a field trip. Twenty-one years later, she returned with Loveless and was appalled at what she saw. Helm closed down her antique business and adopted Pioneer. She also enlisted her husband, Lee, the owner of a successful 50-person precision-machining operation that supplies parts to the aerospace industry.

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