One hundred sixteen winters have taken a toll on the Moss Mansion. Last week, executive Director Jenna Peete and volunteers were still trying to dry interior sandstone walls where melting snow has leaked for years.
Their efforts to preserve this historic museum in the heart of Billings will get a significant boost with a new Montana museum grants program proposed in Senate Bill 38. Gov. Steve Bullock is expected to sign the bill into law soon.
Peete said she has been informed that the $400,000 should be available in January.
The nonprofit Billings Preservation Society operates the Moss Mansion with volunteer board members taking an active role in upkeep and events. The property is jointly owned by the state of Montana and the city of Billings. The $400,000 grant expected next year will be the first money the state has ever spent on the Moss. The Billings parks department regularly assists with lawn maintenance and Christmas lights, but operating and upkeep funds are raised privately by the Billings Preservation Society. Until now, the organization hasn't had the money to tackle a major project such as the wet walls.
The Moss Mansion grant may be the only infrastructure money the 2019 Legislature specifically appropriated for a project in Billings. The local lawmakers who supported the Montana Museums Act deserve credit: Sens. Duane Ankney, Jen Gross, Margie MacDonald, Mary McNally and Tom Richmond, and Reps. Jade Bahr, Rodney Garcia, Jessica Karjala, Kathy Kelker, Emma Kerr-Carpenter, Dale Mortensen and Sharon Stewart-Peregoy.
Yet most Yellowstone County Republicans opposed the museum legislation. Voting no to final passage were Sens. Doug Kary, Cary Smith and Roger Webb, along with Reps. Frank Fleming, Dennis Lenz, Bill Mercer, Terry Moore, Vince Ricci, Barry Usher, Sue Vinton, Peggy Webb and Daniel Zolnikov.
SB338 finally succeeded where other legislation had failed for more than a decade. The Montana Historical Society collection of state documents, artifacts and priceless artwork has long since outgrown the Pioneer Building across the street from the Capitol in Helena. Various proposals to fund its expansion and renovation repeatedly failed to win the two-thirds majority approval to finance the project with state bonds.
A more appropriate and pragmatic funding mechanism is proposed in SB338. It will increase the state lodging sales tax from 3% to 4% starting Jan. 1, 2020. (The state presently charges a lodging "use" tax of 4% that is devoted to tourism promotion, plus the 3% sales tax that goes into the general fund, for a total 7% in state lodging taxes.)
This legislation will cover most costs of the Montana Heritage Center project in Helena, but the Historical Society is responsible for raising $10 million from other sources. Fundraising has been going on with about $4 million given or pledged so far, according to Bruce Whittenberg, historical society executive director. The Montana Department of Administration will oversee the project, which is expected to be completed in about five years.
SB338 directs 80 percent of the new lodging tax revenue to the Historical Society project for five years, and 20 percent to a new grant program for other Montana museums. After five years, a much smaller portion of the 1% collections will go to the Historical Society for museum operations, the statewide grant program will continue and the balance will be used for tourism promotion.
The Montana lodging association supported SB338, recognizing it as a smart investment in their industry. The 12 million out-of-staters who visit us each year will pay the bulk of the tax.
"One beautiful thing about this bill is the historic preservation grant program," Whittenberg told The Gazette last week. "Other museums and historic sites will ultimately see far more investment than is made in construction of the Montana Heritage Center."
Peete is grateful for the grant dedicated to the Moss Mansion. "I am so pleased the bill passed," Peete told The Gazette last week. "I am thrilled funds will be available to small museums." Getting a grant can make the difference between keeping the a museum's doors open another year or closing, she said.
Thanks to the Billings folks who asked their representatives to support our museums. Thanks to the lawmakers who listened. As Peete said: "It took a whole lot of community engagement to make this happen."