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Bethlehem Museum of Industrial History was a mirage

For the last 15 years, the National Museum of Industrial History has been a mirage.

First, it was scheduled to open by the end of 1999. Then in late 2000. Then a Preview Center in 2001 and the full museum in 2004 or 2005. Then the summer of 2008. Always just out of reach.

As recently as last fall, museum leaders were promising a scaled-back opening in phases. President and CEO Steve Donches declined to offer a new opening date this time, telling a reporter, "Trust me. Nobody wants to announce this more than me. We're close."

I've written columns I'm proud of over the years. There also are some I would take back if I could. But news about this museum last week reminded me of a column I never wrote — and should have.

A Northampton County grand jury on Thursday called on Donches to resign, finding waste and mismanagement that has cost the project millions of dollars and produced very little.

The grand jury's report, publicly announced by District Attorney John Morganelli, recommended the museum consider a civil lawsuit against Donches to recoup money paid to him because of "negligence and/or breach of contract."

Morganelli will forward the findings to the state attorney general to see if the museum should be involuntarily dissolved.

The report concluded that the museum collected $17 million to $19 million in private and public funds, yet had nothing to show for it but a new roof and windows on its building, some exterior renovations and Smithsonian Institution artifacts that were prematurely shipped to Bethlehem and had to be stored elsewhere at great expense.

It concluded that Donches, a former Bethlehem Steel executive, was ill-prepared for the job when he was hired and that he collected almost $2.5 million in salary and benefits to preside over a museum that didn't exist and may never exist. It said at $180,000 a year, he was paid double what would have been expected for similar positions elsewhere. It said the museum board offered minimal guidance as money was being spent.

Eighty percent of the millions collected to open a Museum of Industrial History instead went to pay exorbitant salaries, benefits and other operating expenses, the report said.

I've known for years that Donches was being paid handsomely to run a nonexistent museum. Blinded by my enthusiasm for the reuse of the abandoned Steel plant and the involvement of the prestigious Smithsonian, I at first engaged in cheerleading for these efforts, and even after I began expressing skepticism that much progress was being made, I praised Donches and other former Steel executives for trying to make the museum happen, blaming their failure on inadequate fundraising.

However, the grand jury report says the project's inadequate fundraising was no fluke. Its fundraisers didn't know what they were doing, the report said, and the money they did raise was wasted.

Here's how I began my last column on the museum, which ran in 2005:

One of the few advantages to getting older is that it gives you more perspective.

That's a poor trade-off for getting flabby, deaf, blind and bald, but it's something.

So as I stood shivering in a wind-whipped south Bethlehem parking lot Monday, watching speakers laud the plans for a National Museum of Industrial History, I was less impressed than I would have been, say, five years ago.

Don't get me wrong. It's a great idea, and I very much want it to happen. But we've been there before. Literally.

In January 2000, in a similar ceremony in the same parking lot, construction workers began demolition work aimed at opening the Museum of Industrial History Preview Center by Nov. 30, 2000.

Original plans had called for $40 million to be raised by 1999, and the Preview Center to open by the end of that year. That hadn't happened.

But Stephen Donches, then Bethlehem Steel's vice president of community affairs, said on that January day that raising enough money for the project was not a concern. "We'll raise it," he said. "We always do."

They didn't.

So I was skeptical in 2005, but never returned to the subject as my doubts were confirmed for the next eight years? That's the definition of being asleep at the wheel.

For the record, Donches blamed the economic environment, claimed "there have been major accomplishments" and said Morganelli has it in for him.

I'm not buying it. The numbers and the results, as outlined by the grand jury, speak for themselves.

The good news is that the sinking of the museum didn't sink hopes for reinvigorating the South Side. Thanks to a casino, an arts center, new industrial development and lots of small businesspeople, South Bethlehem is more vibrant than I've ever seen it, and the future is bright.

Still, it's galling to think of how much more could have been accomplished with an additional $17 million to $19 million in private and public money put to productive use.

Instead, it was wasted on a mirage.

bill.white@mcall.com 610-820-6105

Bill White's commentary appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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