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Museum project

Published July 08. 2014 04:00PM

The group attempting to resurrect a National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem is hoping to get to a long-delayed opening with two new sources of revenue - a $3 million gift and the proposed conversion of a decades-old $5.5 million fund set up by Bethlehem Steel employees to indemnify them from lawsuits after the corporation's demise.

Those numbers qualify as progress toward this beleaguered project, but it's important to remember this nonprofit board never had a huge problem raising money. As a critical grand jury investigation found, the museum board managed to generate and spend $17 million over 17 years - with no museum to show for it.

The grand jury found that 80 percent of donations went to operating costs instead of the museum's mission. It recommended the firing of CEO Stephen Donches, who was making $180,000 a year; that the board and management be reconstituted with better accountability; and that it deal with conflicts of interest. Failing that, the grand jury said, the state attorney general should dissolve the museum board, allowing for its mission and money to be transferred to a more responsible nonprofit group.

Right now the project is in a legal holding pattern. Board President L. Charles Marcon attempted to move the process forward; Donches was demoted to a position paying half his former salary. Yet nothing much can be done, nor should it, until the Attorney General's Office weighs in on the situation.

Raising more money doesn't address the $17 million question. It re-emphasizes issues of trust, transparency and accountability the grand jury found lacking.

Other questions are still unanswered:

• What's the actual cost to get the museum up and going? In his grand jury testimony, Donches placed it at $3 million. An estimate provided to the board in February came in at $4.5 million. In April, Marcon said he expects it would be $6 million.

• What's the best use for the $5.5 million trust fund? It was created by Steel executives in 1986 to protect them against future lawsuits. If unused, the money was to go to Lehigh University.

There are plenty of potential uses for the money - from distributing it to retirees who lost much of their pensions, to social service agencies on South Side, to lasting public improvements. Given the board's record of spending, the community could come up with many more tangible and justifiable proposals.

Looking back, having had $17 million to spend and now potentially $8.5 million to $13 million more in the works, this board should be looking at the second or third addition to a museum that opened a decade ago.

Instead, the Bethlehem community has a 17-year gap in leadership that serves as a monument to the downfall of the industry as much as any piece of equipment serves to recall its greatness.

The (Easton) Express-Times

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