JEFFERSONVILLE — The president of the Vintage Fire Museum and Education Center’s board of directors said he wasn’t offended that a clause to reclaim the nonprofit’s current home was exercised, but he was surprised that no Jeffersonville official alerted him that a vote was to be taken on the issue.
The Jeffersonville Redevelopment Commission voted 3-1 on Wednesday to end its lease agreement with the museum. The vote started a 180-day notice period for the museum to vacate its city-owned location at 723 Spring St.
Commission members including Mayor Mike Moore said the property is a prime asset to the city and that several commercial developers had inquired about purchasing it. But according to City Attorney Les Merkley, the commission cannot accept requests-for-proposals for the site until the property’s current tenant, the museum, has vacated the premises.
“This is valuable property and our job as redevelopment commissioners is to redevelop property and bring financial wealth to the city,” Moore said.
The museum’s board of directors approved moving to the former Bales Auto building in Jeffersonville in 2013. The museum had previously been located in New Albany in the former Coyle auto building along Spring Street, but a deal couldn’t be reached to purchase the property.
The museum’s board reached an agreement with the Jeffersonville Redevelopment Commission to lease its current property for $500 annually. After an initial five-year deal, the museum and the commission renewed a lease in 2019.
The museum recently purchased another building across the street that was intended to be used for an educational center on fire safety and as a memorial garden to honor firefighters. The plan was for the fire engines and equipment to continue to be displayed at the current location.
Curt Peters, president of the museum’s board of directors, wasn’t allowed to speak during the virtual meeting. Moore said he was offended that the museum had taken to Facebook “and posted some untruths” about the process.
Moore claimed that Peters was made aware that the city would eventually want to reclaim the property for commercial development in March 2018.
“He knew this was on the horizon,” Moore said. “There is a place for the fire museum and I’m glad they have the financial means to purchase the property across the street.”
The museum, located in Jeffersonville’s arts district, is operated by volunteers and heavily supported by contributions.
In October, redevelopment member Jack Vissing informed the body that he had recently accepted a spot on the museum’s board of directors. Moore mentioned then that he would like to have some discussions about the future of the museum at its current location.
The News and Tribune contacted Peters on Tuesday night after the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting had been released and it included a resolution affecting the museum. Peters said he wasn’t aware that a vote was slated and that he hadn’t been invited to attend or speak during the meeting.
Peters said a volunteer with the museum did post a notification on the organization’s Facebook page about the Wednesday meeting because they believed that members of the public would be allowed to speak.
Vissing initially asked for the resolution to be tabled, but his motion died for a lack of a second. He made multiple requests during the meeting for Peters to be allowed to speak, but those were denied.
Vissing eventually voted against the resolution.
“I don’t think that this has been handled correctly,” he said.
Scott Hawkins, a council member and the president of the commission, said he believes in the mission of the museum but he can’t support it staying at the current site “when it is holding back major development.”
Some commission members said they’d be willing to work with the museum in the future. Peters said they could start by backing the organization’s efforts to obtain a grant to replace the roof for its recently purchased second building and by reimbursing the board for about $100,000 in improvements it made to the leased property.
Peters added that the commission’s reasoning seemed to put too much emphasis on money without considering the quality-of-life contributions museums make to communities, especially in an arts district.
“The fact of the matter is that our whole purpose has been to benefit the community — to benefit the city of Jeffersonville and the people of Jeffersonville and to benefit the community on a larger scale,” Peters said.
“We have done this by offering important history that is pretty unique. Where would you go to find this kind of history of fire-fighting that we’re able to offer? You’d have to go a long ways away.”
Peters said the timing of the commission’s decision was also ironic because the museum had recently been approached by the Jeffersonville Fire Department about helping with the 150th celebration of the department in 2021.
Peters didn’t dispute that the lease agreement allowed the commission to find a new tenant or sell the building, but he said the board was under the impression that one or the other had to occur before they could be served notice to vacate.
The second museum building is smaller than the current site and Peters said he’s not sure if all of the displays and equipment will fit there. The educational center component definitely can’t fit inside the building with the displays, he said.
The commission won’t know what will locate at the property until the RFP process has occurred, which is required by state law.
Peters said he hopes the city and the museum can work together moving forward.
“A point that is sometimes lost is that really the fire museum was the first significant development in the area north of Court Avenue that kind of triggered further development,” Peters said. “So the fire museum should not be seen as standing in the way of development, but rather as having been and continuing to be an impetus for development.”