Budget & Tax

Ray Carter | May 23, 2023

OKPOP Museum becoming money pit

Ray Carter

Eight years after state lawmakers provided $25 million to build the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture in Tulsa, the facility has yet to serve patrons and its cost to state taxpayers is exploding.

The concept for the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture, also called OKPOP, was originally developed in 2008. By 2015, state lawmakers voted to provide $25 million in bonding to pay for the museum’s construction. The museum broke ground in October 2019 with an expected opening date in late 2021. But the museum has yet to open to the public, which officials blame in part on COVID, and associated state costs are now increasing.

The Tulsa World recently reported that former Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman, a Sapulpa Republican who championed the project in 2015, “said recently it was clearly understood at the time that the $25 million was all the state would put into the project.”

When he announced legislation to fund construction of the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture in 2015, Bingman said, “This proposal gives the Legislature an opportunity to show how projects like this ought to be done—in a fiscally responsible way with a credible, sensible plan.”

In 2015, a major selling point of the business plan was that the museum would own a parking garage that would generate revenue to cover much of its operational costs.

However, lawmakers are now considering Senate Bill 22X, which would provide another $18 million in state taxpayer dollars for the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture

Discussing the bill during a legislative hearing on Tuesday, Senate Appropriations Chairman Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, conceded, “This has been ongoing for a number of years.”

Several million additional federal tax dollars have recently been provided to the museum by the City of Tulsa and Tulsa County, which both earmarked a share of their federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to the project.

ARPA, a cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda, passed Congress in March 2021. The U.S. Department of the Treasury declares the purpose of ARPA was to “deliver immediate and direct relief to families and workers impacted by the COVID-19 crisis through no fault of their own.”

The city of Tulsa has given the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture $1 million in federal ARPA funds while Tulsa County has provided another $2 million in ARPA money.

Thompson said officials now say they need $36 million to finish the museum.

“This bill actually appropriates $18 million for a one-time payment that must be met with monies that equal that—not in-kind donations, but actually monetary donations,” Thompson said.

If the matching funds are not provided by Tulsa officials before Nov. 15, 2024, Thompson said the $18 million will revert back to the state.

State Rep. Mark Lepak, a Claremore Republican who noted he is one of only a relative handful of lawmakers who served when the museum bond was approved in 2015, questioned why the museum now needs more state funding.

“At the time, Pops had committed to taking this one-time infusion of cash, fundraising the rest, getting a parking lot that would be used to fund their operations,” Lepak said. “That was kind of the promise when we passed that bill back then. What’s changed that we need to infuse more cash, even if it’s matching (funds)?”

State Rep. Carl Newton, a Cherokee Republican who chairs the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Natural Resources and carried the bill in committee, responded, “The money has not been sufficient.”

State Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, conceded that things have not gone as planned with the museum.

“You’re correct. It was to be co-located with a parking garage, which was to provide revenue,” Blancett said. “The parking garage never manifested itself.”

The Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture has been controversial since its inception.

Senate Bill 839 in 2015 provided $25 million in bonds to pay for construction of the museum.

The bill initially failed in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, then received the bare minimum of 51 votes required for passage when taken up a second time.

Lawmakers questioned the wisdom of spending millions of dollars on a new museum, noting that it would likely increase state costs in future years.

Then-state Rep. George Faught, R-Muskogee, said he had discussed the issue with officials at the Oklahoma Historical Society, which is associated with the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture.

“No museum out there that they have currently pays for itself,” Faught said.

Then-state Rep. David Brumbaugh, R-Broken Arrow, said the museum had little public support aside from a handful of backers who were not willing to put their own funds on the line.

“There will always be people … who want to use the state as a piggy bank,” Brumbaugh said. “You see it every day.”

SB 22X passed the Senate Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget on a 21-0 vote. It passed the House Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget on a 31-3 vote. The bill will next be heard on the floor of the Oklahoma Senate.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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