New Museum Worth Wait For City Administrator - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

New Museum Worth Wait For City Administrator

December 3rd, 2018 SanTan Sun News
New Museum Worth Wait For City Administrator

City of Chandler

Back in November 2007, Jody Crago left Chicagoland and took his career on a long and winding road that led him, 11 years later, to the soon-to-be-open front door of the new Chandler Museum.

And lately, it occurs to him what a long, strange trip it’s been.

“I was hired to build a new museum in Chandler, thinking construction was imminent, then the recession hit,” Crago recalled. He had left the DuPage County Historical Museum in Illinois, where he was director, to become the administrator of a new Museum Division in Chandler.

The existing museum in Downtown Chandler had been operated by the nonprofit Chandler Historical Society for decades, and Crago was tasked with overseeing the transition of the museum operations to city control. “Once that was completed in 2008, we were ready to get started building a new facility in the historic downtown area,” he added.

As the Great Recession progressed, falling tax revenues and gloomy budget projections caused a reevaluation of the situation. The initial plan to place the museum across from the planned City Hall campus – on the empty parcel known as Site 6 – was changed to place the facility on the north side of the under construction City Hall campus.

At the same time, city funding continued to reflect the impact of the recession, department budgets were cut and city leaders were hesitant to build a new facility they would not be able to fully staff.

“The main area of concern wasn’t the one-time construction costs, it was the projected $1.1 million in ongoing operational costs for a 25,000-square-foot, four-story museum,” Crago said. Eventually, the project was delayed and pushed out to the fifth year of the Capital Improvement Program’s budget.

Because Chandler voters had already twice approved bonds to fund new museum construction, it was not a question of whether the facility would be built, but rather when and where. While Crago and the Museum staff waited for economic conditions to improve, they began to change the Museum’s exhibition strategy and relationship with the community.

“If we had to wait for a new building, we wanted the Museum to expand its presence in the community in other ways and show the people of Chandler that a museum is more than bricks and mortar,” Crago said.

Museum staff created exhibits on pop-up banners that could travel to various sites around the city. They moved the student field trips away from the downtown Museum and to Tumbleweed Ranch – the collection of historic houses and farm equipment in the southeast corner of Tumbleweed Park – and worked with teachers to develop an educational curriculum.

A new family friendly and historical event, the Chuck Wagon Cook-off, was introduced in 2009 to introduce the Museum to new audiences. The following year, the Museum began digitizing their photo collection and documents on ChandlerpediA, an online historical archive that is available to the public 24/7.

Meanwhile, during this period, the Museum was also conducting public forums and focus groups to develop a “Community Speaks” roadmap showing the city leaders what the public wanted in a new museum – the types of exhibits, amenities and programs that would attract residents of Chandler, surrounding communities and tourists.

Then, in 2012, Crago and staff were faced with another unexpected turn of events when structural and maintenance issues at the aging Museum forced an early closure and demolition.

The Museum’s staff and collection were moved to the McCullough-Price House, a recently restored ranch house on the National Register of Historic Places, across from Chandler Fashion Center. Museum operations continued, and Crago waited for the opportunity to do what he was originally hired to do.

Chandler came through the recession in better shape than most other Valley cities, and by 2015, circumstances were favorable enough to move forward. “By this time our vision had changed for what the new Museum should be,” Crago said. “The idea of constructing a big museum was out, building in the downtown area was unlikely, so we started looking at creating a Museum campus here, with a smaller, modern building integrated with the historic McCullough-Price House.”

The scaled down project cut construction costs in half and operational costs were reduced to a third of original estimates. “The new building is cost effective, yet striking. The architecture, the public art, the signage are all eye-catching. You won’t miss it when you drive by,” Crago said.

As the Dec. 8 Grand Opening draws near, and after 11 years of starts and stops, what is Crago thinking about his journey? “Seeing this through to completion has been a real honor, one of the most amazing experiences of my career.” He added, “Now that we are here, I can’t wait for the public to see it.”

“We wanted to create something that respects our history while representing our aspirations as a modern, dynamic community. Preservation plus progress. I think we will judge it as a success if people around town are talking about the Museum and encouraging their family and friends to visit,” Crago said. “I want to hear visitors saying, ‘This is so interesting. I can’t wait to come back and see your next exhibit.’”

City of Chandler