By Alicia James
Downtown Corvallis’ bustling cultural scene is slated to expand when the Benton County Historical Society (BCHS) opens its new museum space in 2017. The fundraising campaign, launched in 2008, is nearing its halfway goal. Some have criticized the landmark building’s development for taking too long. However, a project of this magnitude and impact involves more variables than just the City of Corvallis.
BCHS purchased the corner lot on SW 2nd Street and Adams Avenue in 1999, after the policy-changing 1995 purchase of Oregon State University’s Horner Collection. The intent was to renovate the old Copeland Lumber building, but Corvallis’ mixed-use riverfront redevelopment codes proved to be an obstacle. “They required the kind of construction we weren’t able to accomplish,” said Irene Zenev, executive director of BCHS. Rather than figure out how to fit condominiums into a museum, the historical society’s board decided to sell the 1st Street side of the lot.
BCHS’s fundraising efforts for the Corvallis museum bore the brunt of our national recession as well. Just as BCHS launched the $9 million campaign and started to unpack the Horner Collection, the bottom dropped out of the economy. “We were able to step back and really take advantage of the hiatus to look at the museum plan and see exactly what it was we wanted to do,” said Zenev. When fundraising resumed at the end of 2010, BCHS emerged with a new architect, Brad Cloepfil of Portland’s Allied Works Architecture.
According to Museum, a bi-monthly trade magazine published by the American Alliance of Museums, it takes 15 to 20 years for a non-profit the size of BCHS to develop a large capital project like the one planned for downtown Corvallis. A recent $1 million matching challenge, donated by Peter and Rosalie Johnson, certainly aligns BCHS with the national average. An additional three years is well within this timeline and worth the wait, especially when the benefits to Corvallis are taken into account.
Current downtown businesses will benefit from increased foot traffic. The BCHS’s Philomath location is the third-largest cultural collection in Oregon, which makes it a significant tourist attraction. In fact, 43 percent of 2014 visitors came from the extended Willamette Valley and beyond. While it’s common insider knowledge that out-of-town folks spend more per capita than local guests, BCHS went a step further and planned the new museum with Corvallis businesses in mind. “We purposefully eliminated a [museum] café because there are so many eateries in downtown,” said Zenev. “We want them to spend their money with our economic partners.”
The Corvallis museum opening will also create more jobs. Aside from the obvious staff needed to run the new downtown location, BCHS will need additional employees at the historic Philomath building, which will be renovated to expand their research library and create a public reading room. Unlike many museum expansion projects, BCHS anticipated this need and specifically earmarked funds from the sale of the 1st Street side for increased staff and programming operations.
Corvallis’ patience will pay off in the end. “Our audience is in Corvallis,” said Zenev. “We feel like it’s going to be more than a historical society museum. It will be a community living room.”
Now if we could just find somewhere to park…
For those interested in making a donation and viewing design plans, visit www.corvallismuseum.org.