A piecemeal approach to saving Georgia’s history?

Six years ago, the state paid $1.1 million for the old World of Coca-Cola building downtown and talked of turning it into Georgia's premier history museum. Today, the building is still the old World of Coke, empty and sweltering, a museum of air and dust.

Georgia isn’t the only original colony without a state museum, but it’s in a minority that includes Rhode Island and New Hampshire. And since the state bought the one-time monument to Coke, the General Assembly has twice killed funding to start work on a museum there.

The old World of Coke, fenced off from Underground Atlanta and filled with leftover shelving, mannequins, chairs and storage items, is a symbol of the General Assembly’s skittishness when it comes to funding the preservation of Georgia’s history.

The state provides minimal upkeep on the aging building. The estimated cost of turning it into a museum, meanwhile, rose from a $12.4 million the year the state acquired it to $17.3 million in 2011. That cost will likely only grow, but talk of the state museum has virtually disappeared from the statehouse.

“I think it is at least a couple of years down the road before we can see fit to spend the money for a museum,” said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn. “We’ve still got some other things we need to do.”

Those things generally don’t include historic preservation.

The recession and low attendance killed state funding for golf, music and sports halls of fame in Augusta and Macon, but lawmakers continue to support an agriculture museum in Tifton. The state spent about $70 million to restore the Capitol during the 1990s and early 2000s, but the Georgia Archives nearly closed to public use last year until Gov. Nathan Deal intervened. State funding for the Department of Natural Resources’ historic preservation program has dropped 27 percent since 2008, and even with a doubling of federal money, Georgia spends less than it did five years ago.

“We’re rich in history. We are one of the oldest states in the country,” said George Hooks, a member of the Board of Regents, a former longtime lawmaker and a history buff. “The story of Georgia needs to be told.”

In Atlanta, little symbolizes how hard it is to get lawmakers to fund the telling of that story better than the on-again, off-again effort to give the state a museum to display its history.

The state has warehouses and other buildings filled with artifacts, everything from historic documents to Civil War-era weaponry. It also has curiosities like two-headed calves and snakes included in the Capitol museum on the fourth floor of the statehouse.

‘A yacht and a house on the beach’

The idea of a museum near the Capitol — where the thousands of schoolchildren and tourists who visit the statehouse each year could learn about the state’s history — is decades old.

Just in the past 20 years, committees have formed to study the idea and disbanded without seeing much progress.

Fresh from winning a second term, Gov. Zell Miller included $4.2 million in his 1996 budget to design a 300,000-square-foot museum and library on Capitol Avenue. He later vetoed the money when a report projected the museum’s price tag at $125 million, an amount the governor termed “outrageous.”

“I think a museum would be nice, but so would a yacht and house on the beach, ” Miller said at the time.

A decade later, the state bought the 17-year-old World of Coca-Cola building when Coke opened its new soft-drink shrine near the Georgia Aquarium. In January 2008, Gov. Sonny Perdue proposed borrowing $15.6 million to renovate the building and turn it into a state history museum. But the House took the money out of the budget.

Lawmakers said they had other, more pressing priorities. But that same session, lawmakers approved spending nearly $3 million on the music, sports, golf and aviation halls of fame and the agriculture museum, all outside of metro Atlanta. They added $2 million to the state budget for a welcome center at Tallulah Falls and millions more for libraries and college buildings in the districts of prominent lawmakers.

Less than a year later, the state started cutting back as the economy went into a nose-dive, and most of the state’s halls of fame and many historic preservation efforts were slashed.

Just last year, the House offered $750,000 in seed money to get the museum project going. But this time the Senate axed the idea — not before both chambers again added other construction projects in the districts of key lawmakers.

Larry Walker, a member of the Board of Regents, chaired the committee of lawmakers and university officials studying the idea. A former House majority leader, Walker is a longtime museum supporter. But he's also a political realist. And he knew it would be tough to get money for the museum when the state was cutting back on everything from education to parks and prisons.

“There are certainly things that are a higher priority, and that’s why it hasn’t been funded yet,” Walker said. “It’s hard to fund a state history museum when you’re furloughing people.”

Historic preservationists and those leading the fight to preserve artifacts, manuscripts and other pieces of Georgia history have heard that kind of response many times.

“This is what politicians would say, when you’re working with a limited budget and you’ve got fire and police and social services and Medicare and Medicaid and all these things to be provided for, history looks like a luxury,” said Todd Groce, president of the Georgia Historical Society. “But in fact, that’s like saying education is a luxury.”

‘Not taking the bath on it that we were’

One facility that has survived the recession is the Georgia Museum of Agriculture and Historic Village in Tifton.

In 2006, a state audit said the museum had done such a poor job of maintaining donated historical artifacts that many were in a state of “deterioration and disrepair.” It said museum officials had overspent their budget in previous years and used $175,000 for an RV park that was unlikely to generate much money.

Rural areas have long had a powerful voice in the General Assembly, and the Legislature responded to the audit the next year by increasing funding for the facility by 28 percent. Later, when state money dwindled for other museums and halls of fame, the agriculture museum survived.

Responsibility for it was transferred to Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, which tweaked its mission to include more meeting, conference, art and educational uses. The state spent about $700,000 on the facility last year. Still, it relies heavily on student and volunteer help.

The site has a museum building and conference center, and a historic village that includes the original Victorian home of Tifton’s founder. College officials said the museum had about 11,000 visitors during the fiscal year that ended June 30 — about half the number who paid to visit the state’s Go Fish Education Center in rural Perry, a facility lawmakers regularly gripe about in part because of low attendance.

However, another 20,000 children on school trips and conferees visit the facilities each year. Abraham Baldwin President David Bridges said the site couldn’t survive as strictly a tourist attraction without big state subsidies.

“Fundamentally, a museum is an education endeavor, it is not a tourism endeavor,” Bridges said. “The fact is, the state should be interested in educating … and preserving its history and teaching the next generation how important it’s been to this state. It costs money to preserve history.”

England, a farmer and agribusinessman, supports the museum despite its low attendance and out-of-the-way location off I-75 in far South Georgia.

“It’s not a barn-burner destination, but we’re not taking the bath on it that we were,” he said. “It was sucking us dry.”

A state history museum at the old Coke building, England said, would be a prime destination, especially for the thousands of people who visit Capitol Hill each year. The building is a block from the Capitol.

“Nobody wants us to have a building with nothing in it,” he said. “A building that sits with nobody in it deteriorates.”

If the state decides against creating a museum on the Coke site, it could sell the building or demolish it. Demolition, however, would prove costly. The Perdue administration proposed spending $5.7 million to tear down the old state archives building near the statehouse in the mid-2000s, but the Legislature blocked the plan after being told it would cost even more to do the job.

In 2010, lawmakers appropriated $3 million to demolish the archives but the lowest bid to do the job came in at $4.9 million, and again it was scrubbed.

That same Legislature would have to approve of a new history museum and appropriate money for it. But advocates of preserving Georgia’s history have learned not to count on state funding.

State funding: from 50 percent to 2 percent

The Savannah-based Georgia Historical Society, founded by legislative charter in 1839, was a longtime state agency until it went private July 1, 1997.

At the time, the society’s operating budget was less than $200,000. Now it’s more than $2 million for an organization that houses the world’s oldest collection of material related to Georgia.

Its collection includes letters from Thomas Jefferson, a federal registry of Cherokee belongings as the government began forcibly removing the tribe during the Trail of Tears, a visual history of African-American communities just after the Civil War and an original draft copy of the U.S. Constitution — one of only about a dozen that exist worldwide.

“I’d certainly say we’d love to have more funding from the state,” said Groce. “At one time, state funding was half of our budget. Today, it’s about 2 percent of the budget.”

Part of any solution is for historians and preservationists to make the case that their work is essential, Groce said.

“When you’re talking to the chairman of the appropriations committee, or the governor, or you’re talking to the Woodruff Foundation, or to an average citizen — they’re got to see that somehow you are valuable to their lives in some way, that you have a role to play that is worthy of them supporting you with their dollars,” Groce said.

It is not just Georgia’s problem. Other states have talked about how they can work together and make a case for greater support.

To that end, the American Association of State and Local History will hold its annual meeting in September in Birmingham with an agenda that includes sessions on branding and visibility.

Mark C. McDonald, president of The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, said the state has a strong foundation of locally supported efforts that continue despite steep cuts caused by the recession.

“It’s been very difficult,” said McDonald, whose group puts out an annual list of “places in peril” to bring attention to notable sites and buildings in Georgia under threat of demolition or neglect.

“We’re in a highly charged political environment about the expenditure of public dollars,” he said. “I do not believe in my heart they [budget cuts] are aimed at gutting historic preservation. I am optimistic as our state recovers, our historical preservation efforts will be rebuilt.”