Money for Chattanooga History Museum runs out before any exhibits are built

Daryl Black leads a tour of the new Chattanooga History Center on Jan. 15, 2015. Black, the museum director, said no opening date has been set. The museum needs another $3.2 million to open its doors.

Chattanooga History Museum Timeline

In 2000, the city donated an adjacent building to the downtown museum and in 2006 the name changed to the Chattanooga History Center. Daryl Black was hired to be a curator. In 2008, the museum sold off its properties and moved into a temporary location on Lindsay Street. In 2009, the board promoted Black. He was an academic, a former history professor and adjunct instructor. He taught at the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Aside from his curating experience, he had not been employed by a museum before.

After raising more than $10 million over the past 10 years, the Chattanooga History Center apparently is out of money before it ever opened in the building at 2 W. Aquarium Way it has occupied since 2006.

The downtown center was to be a revolutionary interactive museum - "a world-class destination," in the words of former director Daryl Black.

But River City Co. CEO Kim White told the Times Free Press this week that museum officers informed her in late December they did not have money to continue making payments on the building's approximately $1.8 million mortgage. White had suggested the center move to a smaller, more affordable downtown building. But the officers told White they could not afford a smaller venue without a financial partner's help. No partner materialized.

"They told me they would talk with the [downtown Chattanooga] Public Library about moving onto a floor of that building," White said Monday. "They notified their donors and me two days ago that they would be leaving."

The Aquarium Way building was purchased for about $2.3 million. A move to the library essentially would reduce the two-story, 11,000-square-foot Chattanooga History Center to an exhibit rather than a museum. The center already has spent about $4 million on renovating the vast, airy space above the ground-floor Puckett's restaurant. Benches, metal frames and glass partitions have been bought and installed.

Library director Corinne Hill confirmed Thursday she had been talking with staff and officers of the History Center, but no decisions have been made.

"We would love to have part of the center's collection here," Hill said. "But these are just preliminary discussions. It would be a big deal to house part of the collection here, so we would want to be sure we had the best space in the library ready to [do so]. We would need to know whether the center's staff could care for the artifacts. It's not as simple as loading items into a truck, driving them here and putting them on display. We would want to have a beautiful, interesting exhibit put together for the public."

Hill has an interest in library-museum partnerships, especially given her time working in Dallas, where the libraries often have detailed displays of historic artifacts. She also believes the library would be a fun and accessible location for high school and elementary school students, as well as the general public, to view the region's history.

Marlene Payne is still listed on the Chattanooga History Center's website as the executive director who replaced Black. But curator Marie Bourassa said Thursday that Payne is employed only part time on a consulting basis and has no access to voicemail at the center or to messages left there for her. Bourassa said she could not comment on whether Payne is still the full-time curator. The only other staff member listed on the website is education director Caroline Sunderland. Bourassa said Thursday she was not at the center either, but would not elaborate.


Chattanooga History Center board President Jo Coke and Carl Henderson of Henderson, Hutcherson and McCullough PLLC, who has volunteered as board treasurer the past two years, did not respond to phone calls or a Times Free Press email asking how much money the center now has.

Major donor Bruz Clark of the Lyndhurst Foundation did not respond to calls seeking comment. The center's IRS returns for the last fiscal year ending June 2015 are not yet posted online. Normally, a nonprofit organization may request a six-month extension for filings, which means the center would need to file this month.

The center's 2013-2014 filing shows it had $9,154,312 in net assets.

The opening date of the Aquarium Way museum location had been delayed repeatedly since Black became director in 2009. He vowed it would open in mid-2012, and that was delayed to early 2013, then 2014.

That year, museum officials announced repeatedly it was only a few hundred thousand dollars short of its $10.5 million capital campaign goal, which would allow the doors to open. Black chose New York-based Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the prestigious firm that helped create the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, to design and produce the exhibits and displays, which was to feature a film narrated by Chattanooga native Samuel L. Jackson.

At some point, Black discovered he had mistaken a fraction of Appelbaum's bill for the total charge to create the exhibits. The error surprised donors who had been given optimistic progress reports, newspaper reports from the time show. Henderson defended Black on the mistake, saying, "He wasn't hired for his expertise in financial management. That was really just a responsibility he was handed because the museum has such a small staff."

Black and museum board members told the Times Free Press a year ago they still needed more than $3 million, with $1.86 million of that needed to pay to build the exhibits and $1.3 million to pay off the mortgage.

Henderson and Coke described the financial paperwork of the center in the previous few years as chaotic, and they criticized the delays in getting statements and reports. They said paperwork was being done by the Tennessee Aquarium's accounting staff, and they wondered if the extra workload from the center was proving too burdensome. The aquarium's accountant disputed their viewpoint in a statement provided to the Times Free Press in May 2015.

"We can only comment on the work that we did for the History Center," said Gordon Stalans, the aquarium's CFO. "Monthly financial reports were delivered on a timely basis and they received clean audit reports during the time we handled their accounting, fiscal years 2012 and 2013. We resigned the account in April as they wrapped up 2013, and the next month, they received a clean audit from [the CPA firm] Johnson, Murphy and Wright."

Black resigned last year to take a job at a Gettysburg, Pa., museum, although at his goodbye party, Coke said he would continue to be paid as a consultant here. At that party, Black emphasized, "I will still have input into decision-making and will be keeping a close eye on things to make sure we are moving forward."

The center's website states it still has more than $10 million in funds. White said the officers she met with did not elaborate on how that money was spent.

"We met because they wanted to figure out what to do next, what the next steps should be," she said. "I want them to succeed. River City allowed them to go two years without making a mortgage payment. We can't afford to continue doing that. I need to market that space for the good of the city. But a history museum would be a great thing for the city to have, too."

The building the center is vacating recently was appraised at more than $6 million.

Contact staff writer Lynda Edwards at or 423-757-6391.