Recent winters have been rough on the Moss Mansion. The historic home and museum built in 1903 has a leaky roof and gutters. This week, fans and heaters were running inside the mansion to dry out interior walls and prevent mold, according to executive director Jenna Richter.
The Moss Mansion is operated by the nonprofit Billings Preservation Society, which does all its fund raising. But the mansion is jointly owned by the state of Montana and the city of Billings. The city parks department helps with snow plowing and summer irrigation on the grounds, but provides no funds. The state hasn’t provided any funds.
That would change under legislation proposing support for the long-planned renovation and expansion of the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena while also providing an ongoing grant program for other museums in our state. Senate Bill 338, sponsored by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, proposes that the state lodging tax be increased by 1 percentage point.
Gauthier’s bill would direct most of the additional money to the Montana Heritage Center project planned for the museum across the street from the Montana Capitol — for the first five years beginning on Jan. 1, 2020. The rest of the new revenue would go into a local museum grant program administered by the department of Commerce. The bill specifies that the first year of grants would include $400,000 for the Moss Mansion in Billings and $400,000 for the Daly Mansion in Hamilton, another state-owned historic building that hasn’t been funded by the state.
After the first five years, a small portion of the 1 percent lodging tax revenue would be used to operate the expanded Montana Heritage Center in Helena, but most would be divided between tourism promotion, state parks and grants to local museums.
“Our deferred maintenance list gets bigger every year,” Richter said from the Moss Mansion. “We are honored to be included in this legislation.”
The Billings Preservation Society hasn’t had the money to tackle major improvements needed to keep the house dry inside. Richter said the proposed state grant “would give us such a good start”. She expects a state grant would spur privation donations to complete more of the work needed on the sandstone structure filled with century-old furniture and decor.
The Gazette editorial board has long supported updating and expanding the state history museum to preserve Montana’s story, artifacts and public documents. The planned expansion takes advantage of the existing Pioneer Museum and prime Capitol location. It will add space for exhibits, public meetings and parking. Priceless and fragile art will have proper heat and humidity controls in the new Montana Heritage Center.
The lodging tax is an appropriate source of funding for museums that attract out-of-state visitors as well as Montanans. The Moss Mansion, for example, welcomes 14,000 visitors annually and has been listed as a top attraction on travel websites.
SB338 would generate about $9 million per year in new revenue. Montana’s 11 million annual out-of-state visitors would pay a big chunk of that.
SB338 is an excellent plan to continue the Montana commitment to preserving our heritage. We urge all lawmakers, especially our Yellowstone County legislators, to vote for the Montana Museums Act of 2020.
A hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m., Monday in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee. Gauthier told The Gazette he believes SB338 “has a good shot” at passing. Our senators need to hear from Montanans who agree.
Please voice your support by calling the Legislature’s message line at 406-444-4800 or sending an online message through leg.mt.gov by clicking on “message a legislator.” Messages may be left for the committee or for individual members, who include Cary Smith, Duane Ankney, Doug Kary and Mary McNally.