Ten years after back-to-back storms Katrina and Rita galvanized plans for a Lake Charles museum focused on hurricanes, supporters have secured about $42 million in pledges to build it and are now focused on closing a roughly $15 million funding gap in the coming months.
If they are successful, construction could begin next year and the doors could open by 2018, said Gray Stream, who has led fundraising efforts as chairman of the board for the National Hurricane Museum & Science Center.
“We really want it to be appropriately ambitious and have worked hard to bring a world-class project to Louisiana,” he said.
The vision is a 68,000-square-foot facility offering interactive exhibits and educational programs on the science and impact of hurricanes — how they change the landscape as well as the culture.
Stream said the facility also would serve as a badly needed research center to coordinate and focus hurricane research being done throughout the country.
“I think we recognize that it can’t just exist in the ether,” he said. “It has to have a headquarters. It has to have a home.”
The museum, planned for a waterfront site donated by Lake Charles, was designed by Detroit-based architecture firm SmithGroupJJR, which has worked on a long list of major public projects, including the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Normandy American Cemetery Visitor Center at the World War II battle site in France.
The seeds for the museum were planted before hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but the initial scope was on a much smaller scale.
“This effort really got launched after the hurricanes,” Stream said.
Fundraising began in earnest about four years ago.
About $42 million has been pledged so far, said Robert Sullivan, with Washington D.C.-based Chora, a consulting group brought in to oversee fundraising efforts.
The state Legislature signed off on $28 million in capital outlay dollars, the Port of Lake Charles pledged $3 million and the city agreed to put up $4.8 million.
Most of the balance has come from private donations.
Stream’s family, which has interests in oil and gas, timber and agriculture, pledged $1 million to the project.
“We are pushing hard now on the regional donors,” Sullivan said.
One obvious source in south Louisiana is oil and gas companies, Sullivan said, but with crude prices at historic lows, it’s a tough time to ask for money in the oil patch.
“Energy companies are cautious at this point, but we are hoping there are good things on the horizon,” he said.
Still, the Lake Charles region could be a fertile source for funds, considering the recent boom in industrial development there, and Sullivan has little doubt the museum will reach a funding goal of at least $55 million for the first phase.
“We hope to be up and operating in 24 months,” he said. “It’s an ambitious schedule.”
Stream is cautious.
“I’m not quite certain it’s a 100 percent go, but we’ve made an awful lot of progress,” he said.
A few major prospects are being eyed to fill the funding gap, Stream said, and museum backers should have a feel within the next few months whether the fundraising goal and timeline are realistic.
Stream said he senses growing momentum.
“It’s an interesting type of effort where you sort of hit this rock with a hammer and it finally breaks apart,” he said.