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Blame for National Museum of Industrial History bleak outlook is misdirected

I attended a news meeting years ago in which our editor read a letter from a guy whose arrest we reported in a story about an Allentown prostitution sting.

This man said we ruined his life. His wife had left him, his children wouldn't speak to him, his boss had fired him, all because we put his arrest in the paper. He hoped we were happy with what we had done to him.

His pain was real, I'm sure, but the blame was misdirected. He ruined his own life. We weren't the ones chasing hookers around Allentown. We just reported on arrests by the local police, which is one of the things a newspaper does.

I use that story occasionally when I'm talking about people's attitudes toward the press. But I also thought about it the other day as I considered some of the reaction to the recent grand jury report blasting the leadership of the phantom National Museum of Industrial History.

The Northampton County grand jury concluded that the museum collected $17 million to $19 million in private and public funds with no museum to show for it. The grand jury said 80 percent of the money went to pay exorbitant salaries, benefits and other operating expenses.

The grand jury recommended that President and CEO Stephen Donches resign or be fired and that the museum board sue him to get back all the money the grand jury believes was squandered on him. Its report also was forwarded to the state attorney general's office to determine if the nonprofit should be involuntarily dissolved.

I wrote in the wake of the report that I considered myself derelict for not pointing out long ago the ridiculousness of former Steel executive Donches' collecting $180,000 a year to run a museum that never opened.

Here's where I come back to that story I told at the beginning. Donches and the museum board not only disputed the grand jury's findings, they suggested that District Attorney John Morganelli may have been motivated by some kind of personal grudge to pursue it.

They acknowledge that the project is in trouble now, but they blame that on the harsh report, not on their own failures.

"While the report of the grand jury makes that more difficult, I am convinced the project is viable and vital to the community," Donches said.

"We're still trying to assess the damage this report has done," said board Chairman Charles Marcon.

They say that contrary to the report's conclusions, the museum has made great progress despite a tough economy and could open with just $2 million more. The board announced this week that it had reduced Donches' $180,000 a year salary "substantially" — how substantially, it's not saying, but reducing it by $180,000 sounds right to me — and will consider taking on a partner to help it raise the remaining money and get the museum open.

OK, I'll play along. Let's say the attorney general decides to keep hands off. Let's say the museum finds a nonprofit partner and one or more deep-pocket donors willing to overlook what has happened and fill that $2 million gap. Let's say it finally manages to open its doors to some kind of scaled back exhibit.

After all these years, just opening anything might strike some as a victory, particularly if they've been on the museum payroll or serving on the museum's board as people grew increasingly skeptical. Indeed, after a grand jury has publicly proclaimed them incompetent, gullible or worse, it would feel like a kind of vindication.

But then what?

At this point, how many people still believe such a museum could sustain itself? Is there a realistic business plan that suggests long-term success? Even if there were sufficient interest, why should we be confident that this leader can make this work, given the events of the last 15-plus years?

Back when all this started, we had much more reason to feel confident. The claims of a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution raised hopes this might be something big and successful, and the ambitious schedule for opening the museum suggested there was real momentum here.

But as the finish line kept receding into the mist, it became increasingly clear — or should have — that this was not likely to happen under this leadership, at least not in anything resembling the grandiose terms that once were laid out there.

So the board's decision to retain Donches was a startling confirmation of the grand jury report's observations about its blind loyalty. At the very least, the project needs a fresh look from an outsider of strong credentials who could offer a new perspective on the museum's future, if it has any.

This isn't a fiasco because John Morganelli began an investigation or because the grand jury issued a damning report. It's a fiasco because millions of dollars were squandered, numerous promised opening dates postponed, in pursuit of a project whose viability now seems highly questionable.

The numbers and the lack of results speak for themselves. To blame the bleak future on anyone but the people in charge is like blaming The Morning Call for reporting somebody's arrest. 610-820-6105

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

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