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R.E. Olds museum offered chance to buy its building from Lansing for $2

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Image via Google Street View.

Kristi Schwartzly still recalls the morning she came to work at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum to find that a roof leak had flooded the executive director’s office. Nothing in the museum’s collections got soaked, but the incident may very well not have happened if the museum owned the building, something the city may soon arrange for the museum.

“It is a setback to us that the city owns the building,” she said.

However, as the Lansing State Journal reported last week, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero has agreed to sell the building to the museum for $2. The sale is currently pending approval from the city council as well as a 30-day public comment period.

Since its creation in 1979, the museum has leased — for $1 per year — the 25,000-square-foot building on the Grand River from the city. What once served as a municipal bus garage and later fell into a state of “complete disrepair” has since been turned into a space that not only exhibits Oldsmobile and REO vehicles but also celebrates the contributions Ransom Eli Olds has made to the city of Lansing.

Schwartzly, the manager of the museum, noted that the museum has responsibility for the building’s maintenance and upkeep — as stipulated in a 2005 amendment to the lease agreement — and doesn’t rely on the city to pay any of its bills. Yet because the museum does not own the building, it often misses out on donations or grants from individuals and entities that would like to be reassured of the museum’s permanence.

“We know the city will never kick us out, of course,” she said. Yet the city administration has also in recent years adopted a policy of granting only short-term leases to nonprofits.

According to the museum’s most recent available 990 form from 2015, contributions and grants made up the largest single portion of the museum’s annual revenue: $76,417 out of $160,642, or about 48 percent. The museum’s total revenue, however, fell short of its total expenses two of the last three years.

Priority number one, according to Schwartzly, is to address the roof, which the museum last repaired in 1992 and which a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs is expected to fund. The museum also needs to upgrade its bathrooms to make them compliant with the Americans for Disabilities Act and museum officials would eventually like to set aside some garage space to teach teens how to work on older cars.

As noted on the museum’s website, the museum has already undergone an appraisal, site survey, and environmental assessment in preparation for a handoff from the city. That appraisal came in at $140,000, but estimates for roof repairs have come in at $167,000, according to the Lansing State Journal.

While some in the city have suggested the building be sold to a developer rather than to a tax-exempt non-profit organization, Schwartzly said it’s doubtful any developer would want to buy a building in a floodway, and besides, it’s not as though the city would be losing a source of tax revenue by selling the building to the museum.

“It’s time for the city to give back to the museum,” she said.

Schwartzly said she’d like to see the transfer take place sometime before the end of the year, which will also mark the end of Bernero’s fourth term as Lansing’s mayor.