Clark County to investigate issues tied to air museum ownership

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Commissioner David Madore’s idea of exploring whether Clark County could gain control of the Pearson Air Museum received a tepid response from his fellow commissioners at their Wednesday meeting.

Fellow Republican Commissioner Tom Mielke expressed concerns that the county could move into the middle of a political skirmish by taking such a step, while Commissioner Ed Barnes, a Democrat, disapproved of Madore’s tactic of first floating the proposal in a social media post.

Taken in tandem, however, the concerns weren’t enough to scuttle the idea to bring the aviation museum under county control. The county plans to investigate whether Vancouver has entirely withdrawn itself from ownership consideration — as the city has indicated — as well as what role the National Park Service, which currently operates the museum, plans to play in its future day-to-day operations.

County Administrator Mark McCauley said it appears the park service is ramping up its efforts to manage the museum. A May 19 press release from the federal agency announced it had put together a staffing plan for the museum and was working to “redesign and enhance exhibits.”

“If that’s the case, we should let them do that,” he said.

He said it wouldn’t make sense for the county to actively pursue ownership of Pearson if the park service was committed to operating it.

But Madore said his proposal was just that — a proposal. It calls for investigating whether it would be feasible to transfer ownership of the museum and its land to the county. Many of his followers on Facebook have expressed enthusiastic support for the idea.

The National Park Service took over management of the Pearson Air Museum in February 2013 after lingering issues couldn’t be resolved between it and the Fort Vancouver National Trust, which had operated the museum for several years.

The museum had been set up to run as a collaborative endeavor between the park service, the trust and the city through 2025. The partnership crumbled in recent years over policies regarding community events at the museum, as well as what its focus should be.

A spokeswoman for the Pearson Air Museum could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

Madore said he discussed his proposal Wednesday with U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas.

She introduced a House resolution, known as HR 716, in February, which called for transferring the museum and its seven acres of land from federal control to Vancouver. Madore said he was curious whether a similar House resolution could be drafted for the county. It would be contingent on ensuring that Vancouver had entirely bowed out of ownership consideration.

“This is not an adversarial position at all,” Madore said, adding that if Vancouver were interested in the museum, the county would yield. “This is not a hostile takeover.”

Vancouver has indicated it’s not interested in the museum, however. The city council withdrew its support of HR 716 in May. The city cited the potential financial burden the museum could impose.

Madore said the county, too, should look into how much it would cost to operate the museum. In his Facebook message, he said the museum could be managed by Clark County Parks.

Casey Bowman, Herrera Beutler’s spokesman, said there were both local and political scenarios that would have to play out before the congresswoman could introduce legislation for the transfer.

“The involved local parties would need to be supportive, and it would need to be clearly demonstrated that the finances and logistics penciled out,” Bowman said. “Once a plan was in place, we would also need an indication from the appropriate congressional committees that revised legislation could advance.”

Moving the bill forward could be a tall order. That’s because while such legislation might have a shot passing the House, it would likely face an uphill battle in the Senate.

Steve Horenstein, board chairman of the Fort Vancouver National Trust, said he expressed those concerns to Madore when he met with the commissioner several weeks ago.

He also made it clear that the trust had moved on and was not interested in further negotiations. He said the Fort Vancouver National Trust was working to re-establish its programs.

“We are looking for other options for our aviation education programs,” he said.