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Bills would provide funds for Oklahoma historical sites, including museums

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Measures moving through the Legislature would make dramatic improvements to state properties, including 24 historical sites.

House Bill 4099 would provide $46 million in bond money for the projects, and legislative appropriations would be used to retire the bonds.

Trait Thompson became Oklahoma Historical Society executive director in January 2021 after serving as state Capitol project manager for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.

In his prior job, he oversaw a massive $280 restoration project of the Oklahoma State Capitol.

It included new windows, roofs, remodeling and upgrades to plumbing, electrical and information technology systems, among other things.

Thompson said that after he was hired at the Oklahoma Historical Society, he traveled the state visiting museums and historical sites.

He saw a lot of problems similar to those that had plagued the Capitol.

They included deteriorating roofs and windows. Heating and air conditioning systems were past their life expectancy. Parking lots were falling apart. Some facilities were not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“And I knew that if we are going to help preserve some of the most historic sites and make sure our museums are going to last, we needed to put an investment into them,” Thompson said.

“It is my belief that if the state is going to have an asset, we should take care of it,” he said.

If HB 4099 becomes law, the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore would be slated for $7 million in improvements.

Completed in 1938, the facility is not ADA compliant, Thompson said, adding that the funds would bring the facility into compliance.

The funds would cover a new building for historic collections, said Tad Jones, Will Rogers Memorial Museum executive director.

Current collections are in two vaults that do not meet any museum standards, Jones said.

Also, event space would be added, he said. Currently, events are held in areas occupied by exhibits, he said.

The facility is about 25,000 square feet, with about 12,000 square feet of exhibit space.

According to the facility’s website, it is home to the world’s largest collection of Will Rogers memorabilia and his entire collection of writings.

The package would include $5.34 million for improvements to Fort Gibson, the first military post in what later would become Oklahoma and now a National Historic Landmark.

The facility was used to keep the peace on the frontier and protect the nation’s southern border and was involved in the removal of eastern tribes to Indian Territory.

According to the Oklahoma Historical Society’s website, the Fort Gibson Historical Site includes a reconstruction of the early log fort and stockade, as well as original buildings from the 1840–70s.

“The site features a log stockade that was reconstructed under the Works Progress Administration 1937,” the Historical Society’s website says. That structure was restored again beginning in 2013 and reopened to the public in 2016.

Grants from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and the National Park Service, along with matching state funds, were used to complete that project, the Historical Society noted.

The funds allocated through HB 4099 would cover the cost of painting, siding, windows, remodeling, roof replacements, walking trails, historical preservation and other items.

Another $348,000 would be spent on the 1912 Oklahoma Olympic champion Jim Thorpe Home in Yale. Repairs would include replacing rotting wood and windows, installing a new fire and security system, and painting.

Nearly $1 million would be spent on the Pioneer Woman Museum and Statue in Ponca City. The bill includes $450,000 for a patio for outdoor programming and events and $300,000 to replace a roof. The museum opened in 1958, and the statue was dedicated in 1930.

Another measure, House Bill 3567, would provide $19 million for repairs to the tunnels on the Capitol grounds, including one that houses the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

“They leak,” said Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore. “They flood. There is concrete falling from the ceiling. In one area, you can see daylight.”

House Bill 3571 would provide $70 million in bonds for improvements to the Jim Thorpe Building in the Capitol complex. It houses the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

“The Jim Thorpe Building may have been in more disrepair than the Capitol was when we started,” McBride said.

The building suffers from flooding, is outdated and has extremely small meeting rooms, he said.

“It is really an embarrassment,” McBride said.

He said as debt on the Capitol renovation is retired, it is time to start on new projects.

“Some of these buildings haven’t been taken care of,” McBride said. “It is time to stat looking at taking care of them.”

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