Museum director discusses possible uses for $1.2 million windfall
May 17, 2011
Dan Davidson, director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado, sat Friday in his sunny corner office and crunched numbers into an adding machine.
"It appears to be over $1.2 million," he said. "It's a nice windfall."
That windfall is the result of mineral leasing activity in late 2010 and early 2011 in Northwest Colorado, he said.
Recent breakthroughs in horizontal drilling have made oil extraction from shale formations viable. And, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties sit atop a large geologic mass known as the Niobrara Shale Formation.
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The museum owns approximately 11,000 mineral acres in those counties. Prices on those leases have increased with speculation.
In 2006, the museum fetched $50 to $75 per mineral acre in leases, Davidson said.
Today, things are different.
"All of a sudden, they brought in $1,100 to $1,400," he said of mineral acre leases. "It was a whole new dimension."
The money could bring a new dimension to the museum, too. Davidson envisions an interactive approach to exhibits that will fuse antiques and artifacts with video presentations.
The history of mineral acres and the museum
In the overall timeline of the museum's history, the acquisition of 11,000 mineral acres is relatively recent. And it happened almost by accident.
The museum began to take shape in 1964 in the Moffat County Courthouse, Davidson said.
"It opened in '68," he said. "It took a few years (to open the museum), because they were all volunteers."
Decades passed without much change at the county-owned institution.
"Except for some additions and photographs, it stayed mostly the same until 1990. A few exhibits changed, but not much."
Davidson, whose involvement with the museum began in 1985 as a member of the board, was appointed director in 1990. Around the same time, the county commissioners decided to move the museum to its present-day location at 590 Yampa Ave., a building the county acquired from the National Guard for $1.
Also in 1990, area resident Bill Mackin loaned his private collection of antique guns and gunfighter memorabilia to the museum. An exhibition of Mackin's collection — called the Gunfighter Museum — was opened in 1992.
In 1999, Mackin decided to sell his collection. At the time, the collection was valued at $710,000 — a steep layout for a county-owned entity.
But, Davidson said the museum didn't want to lose it.
"It was a pretty unique collection," he said. "There are collections that are bigger, but it was probably the biggest cowboy collection in the world that was on public exhibit.
"The key is 'public exhibit.'"
Thus began a fundraising effort.
Coincidentally, around that same time, Davidson lucked into an unusual donation.
"I contacted a woman in California," Davidson said of a research call. "Her mother was the first person in to be born in Craig, in 1890."
The California woman, Mary Jean Cornwall, had a unique suggestion, he said.
"She said, 'I have these mineral rights that were on my mother's homestead,'" Davidson recalled. "And she said, 'Would you take them?'
"So, that started it."
Impressed by the novel idea, Davidson solicited mineral rights from roughly 100 donors over the next three years. Those rights are deeded to "The Museum of Northwest Colorado, a Moffat County Entity," Davidson said.
Over the years, the mineral rights have generated modest amounts of annual revenue from leasing and production royalties.
But, the developments of the past few months caught Davidson by surprise.
"Nobody would have foreseen what is happening now. Certainly not myself," he said. "Historically, there's never been anything like what's going on now with the leasing activities, and the dollar amounts that are going into it."
The future of the museum
Davidson said any ideas for spending the windfall must first be approved by the museum's advisory board and, ultimately, the county commissioners.
Also, Davidson envisions holding workshops for input from the community.
"That's frankly to say, 'What do you guys want?' It would be presumptuous to think we couldn't get some good ideas."
In the meantime, Davidson said he has some preliminary ideas: improve research, improve storage and improve exhibits.
"The museum has a rather large component of research," he said. "A lot of small historic museums don't have that. But this one has always had that as far as photographs and items."
Davidson estimates the museum currently holds a backlog of "tens of thousands" of photographs that haven't yet been catalogued into the system for researchers to access. Part of the financial windfall, he said, could fund a full-time data-entry person to handle the backlog.
That same employee could return unnecessary items to their original donors, he said.
Some of the money could be spent on active collection of items. Occasionally, noteworthy items appear on e-Bay, he said.
"Most of our stuff is donated, but an e-Bay person isn't going to donate that stuff to us."
Some money could be spent on capital improvements, Davidson said. When renovations were made to the museum in 1990, much of the building's west end was left untouched.
That space could be used for exhibit expansion or storage.
Offsite storage is another option, he said.
"One of the things we've been talking about is a potential offsite location where we can put items so we have a place that's safe and undercover," he said. "We're limited on that here."
The money could also be put toward reworking exhibits, Davidson said.
"Our audience has changed a lot in the last 20 years," he said. "When we started in 1990, amazingly enough…you didn't have Internet or any of those types of interactive things.
"So, we're going to try to hook into some video-type things for educational purposes, as well as the historical side."
Davidson cautioned, however, that the windfall may not go very far.
"It puts the museum in a totally different circumstance from what it was before," he said of the money. "And, yet, it's in the same circumstance.
"The county has done a lot of cutting in the last couple years, as far as expenditures. All the departments have had huge slices to try to minimize those expenditures. And, that's where we're at."
As to whether the boom in lease activities is a harbinger of a production boom, and even greater revenues for the museum through royalties, Davidson declined to speculate.
"It's too soon," he said. "I don't want to be the prognosticator and be dead wrong. I have really solid opinions of what that's going to do. If I'm right or not, I'm not willing to go out in public and say it yet.
"It could go either way."
Ben McCanna can be reached at 875-1793 or email@example.com.