National Museum of Suburbia? That’s probably when I first began to pay attention to the unique and prominent structure on Metcalf Avenue that once housed a bowling alley and ice chateau.
What is the National Museum of Suburbia doing in Johnson County, and why are my tax dollars going to this old King Louie building? To recap for those that haven’t been following the story, the county purchased the building in November 2011 for $2 million with the intent of using the 70,000 square feet and 5.6 acres for much needed county offices. Oh and also for that half-baked idea called the National Museum of Suburbia.
That monument to Suburbia was not received favorably and completely lost traction. But the county is still in possession of the property. Because the building had been vacant since 2009 and was in need of repairs, the county spent $1.6 million to stabilize and refurbish the structure in 2012.
If anyone had asked me at the time, I would have voted to cut our losses, sell the building and run away from what looked like a money pit. But they didn’t.
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King Louie is back in the news recently because the county has finally found a use for the building. On March 13, the Johnson County commissioners voted to move forward with the plan — The Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center — for $22.23 million.
The Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center will serve as the new home for the Johnson County Museum (including the All Electric House), a flex theater for The Theatre in the Park use, space for arts programming provided by the Johnson County Park & Recreation District and a multipurpose community space.
When I heard about the plan, I peppered county Commissioner Steve Klika with questions about the soundness of the plan. I had two nagging questions over the high price tag and the rumors surrounding the purchase of the building.
According to Joe Waters, Bureau Chief, Johnson County Government:
1. The money already spent on the cost of the building and the subsequent refurbishments, $3.6 million, is included in that total figure.
2. $5.5 million was already a planned expenditure for moving the Johnson County Museum to much needed new space.
3. $6.76 million is in the approved Capital Improvement Program from the 2014 budget year and has been funded to pay for the main lobby, common areas and finishing a portion of the building for advance voting.
4. $6.37 million for the Johnson County Park & Recreation programming for the plan comes from the Johnson County Park & Recreation District’s Map 2020 strategic plan to address a longstanding need for an “arts” hub.
My second question came about after hearing rumors about the original purchase of the building. I didn’t want these rumors to taint my view as the project moved forward. Corruption in government is as unappealing to me as unfounded rumors left unchecked.
How would you respond to the opinion that the original purchase of the building was too quick and done to line the pockets of friends?
Waters states, “In 2009 the Board of County Commissioners directed staff to search for an existing building in a distressed market to relocate the Johnson County Museum. Utilizing a real estate broker, we undertook a search process that was ongoing for about 18 months. We considered several dozen properties before coming back to King Louie when the asking price dropped. Wanting to close before the year-end for tax purposes the sale price was lowered right before closing saving the taxpayers $50,000. The search process and ultimate close on the property was over a two-year period.”
I will never profess to be a budget expert or an authority on county government. But I am a citizen of this county that supports adding community benefits that attract young families, give our children yet another positive outlet for their creative energy and that enable and encourage community involvement.
The area is a central location and offers easy access and opportunities for growth. It connects the more established portions of the county with the newer developments and serves as great connecting point in the heart of the most densely populated area.
Let’s keep an eye on this project as the county government invests in the new Arts and Heritage Center.
Freelance columnist Lori Allen writes in this space once a month.