O Children, Where Art Thou?

Museum peace unlikely as a proposed family center in Phoenix fights critics over right to life.

"It could undermine all future financing for art and cultural amenities," he says.

In the past, Phoenix voters have been generous in approving bond measures. City residents have approved $2.8 billion of the $2.9 billion in projects presented to them in 10 bond elections.

Phoenix Union High School alumni president Don Jackson was frustrated by the workings of the Cultural and Historic Preservation bond subcommittee.
Paolo Vescia
Phoenix Union High School alumni president Don Jackson was frustrated by the workings of the Cultural and Historic Preservation bond subcommittee.

The last bond election was in 1988. That $1 billion package of projects -- to be paid off over a six-year period -- took longer than expected to retire, largely because of a downturn in Phoenix property values.

So in the past 13 years, many city departments and city leaders have developed long wish lists for projects they hope will win approval this month. Police and fire officials say they are woefully behind in technology, equipment and stations to adequately serve Phoenix residents. Libraries, parks and senior centers need more branches, more room and upgrades making them accessible to the handicapped. Street improvements, better storm sewers, a new homeless shelter and neighborhood city service centers are all needed. Arts, cultural and historic preservation groups sought money for new or enlarged facilities, necessary repairs and upgrades and funds to save two Phoenix landmarks: what's left of the Phoenix Union High School and Tovrea Castle.

The city asked 300 Phoenix residents to help whittle the list of nearly $3 billion worth of projects to about $700 million. The goal was to keep the amount low enough so no increase in property tax would be necessary to pay off the bonds.

About 30 people worked on the Cultural and Historic Preservation Subcommittee. They pared down more than $230 million in requested projects by two thirds, held several meetings last fall, toured the proposed projects and conducted two public hearings.

And the Phoenix Family Museum, the only start-up group in the bunch, fared well. It received the third highest individual sum, trailing only two local arts scene veterans: the Phoenix Art Museum and Symphony Hall.

But an examination of the committee and its process shows the museum's success shouldn't have been a surprise.

The top museum backers -- Van der Veen and Freeman -- are veterans of city politics. Freeman served as director of public art for Phoenix at the time of the 1988 bond election, so, she says, she knew how the process worked. Van der Veen is a management assistant for the city's library administration department. Freeman and city councilman Phil Gordon -- a supporter of the museum -- says Van der Veen has been scrupulously careful to do museum business on her own time. But the cause has benefited from Van der Veen's easy access to city staffers and an intimate understanding of the process.

Consider this chatty e-mail, sent from her museum e-mail address, to City Manager Frank Fairbanks in August, as city departments were drawing up their lists of capital needs.

"Hello! We're working away trying to find a good site for the Phoenix Family Museum/Museo de la Familia de Phoenix downtown. If you have any ideas about good/bad locations, we'd love to know . . . Kim"

Fairbanks replied two days later: "Kim, We need to talk. What if we bought a couple of Phoenix Union Buildings and rehabbed them? Just a thought. frank"

In July, the museum became the first -- and so far the only -- organization to be given the use of a city bus, free of charge. A transit department spokesman says the bus was ready to be retired to the surplus yard when the city council approved a three-year loan to the Phoenix Family Museum. According to council records, the city in return will get recognition from the museum and a promise that Phoenix residents will get free admission to any mobile museum events (which so far have been free to everyone). Freeman says the idea came not from inside dealings, but from a museum supporter at Arizona Community Foundation, who broached the idea to councilwoman Peggy Bilsten.

Bilsten did not return calls for comment. A spokesperson for the city says retired transit buses sell for $800 to $3,500 at surplus auctions.

The bus ended up playing an important role in the bond process. Being able to travel around town with portable exhibits allowed the museum to not only drum up support for the idea, but to bolster its statistics on the number of people served -- figures the bond committee requested of every organization seeking money.

As the bond process advanced, Van der Veen was allowed to juggle her schedule so she could attend the Cultural and Historic Preservation Subcommittee meetings. And she was able to keep close tabs on how, in general, the subcommittee process worked. She was listed as one of the city's contacts for the Libraries Subcommittee.

When one of the Cultural and Historic Preservation public hearings was held at the Burton Barr Central Library, the family museum provided free baby-sitting (complete with certified teachers and snacks) in an adjoining room so parents could attend the standing-room-only meeting.

During that public hearing, the museum filled the audience with supporters (some of them pintsized). At other meetings, the organization brought in high-profile members of its advisory board -- including former state attorney general Grant Woods and Phoenix Suns vice president Tom Ambrose -- to ask for money. Backers provided lapel stickers, passed out information folders and used a Power Point computerized slide show to describe their plans.

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