The commission voted 5-2 last week to build the museum, financed by federal stimulus bond money, at Fulton County Airport-Charlie Brown Field. The project, which will have an estimated annual operational cost of $300,000, drew quick criticism upon approval.
"What we approved (last) Wednesday is a concept and nothing more. ... we have no plans drawn," said Commissioner Lynne Riley, who voted against the $26 million bond package because of the requisite new construction. "We are already at the bare minimum of our resources and any new programs are going to be at the expense of others. It takes these funds away from the critical infrastructure and we have identified $59 million of needed repairs at our facilities."
The commission, which has to repay the stimulus money, decided to build the project to honor the Tuskegee Airmen and to fulfill a 1999 promise of a community center to the few neighborhoods near the warehouse district off Fulton Industrial Boulevard. While the next step will be designing the facility, critics question the necessity of the project as well as the expense.
Some county officials had a difficult time after the vote explaining exactly what they wanted to build. Commission Chairman John Eaves said construction was going ahead because the stimulus loan made it possible. County spokesmen emphasized the museum would fit into economic development plans for the district, located near Six Flags Over Georgia, and the facility could grow as funds became available.
In response to queries from the media, both Eaves and County Manager Zachary Williams released statements assuring that education programs and exhibits would fit funding constraints.
Joseph Draper, 79, of Collier Heights near the airport, was pleased a museum was coming after a decade's wait. He also rejected the critics who say the museum is undermining public safety by siphoning funding for jail and courthouse security.
"I think we have a lot of jails already," Draper said. "I'd like to see something in education. We need to teach the kids science and mathematics and history."
Commissioners Robb Pitts and Tom Lowe questioned whether the county could afford to maintain a museum. The original plan envisioned a top-flight museum on par with ones in College Park, Md., and San Diego, Calif. Before the vote, Lowe ripped the plan to build such a facility next to Brown Field, saying, "It isn't going to be successful at the end of a runway. It's ridiculous."
A consultant on the project, the international museum planning service Lord Cultural Resources, projected in 2002 that the facility would cost $20 million to $30 million and include interactive exhibits and educational programs akin to the Georgia Museum of Aviation at Warner Robins.
Economists and public administration experts said commissioners were right to worry.
"These things often get promoted without much understanding about what they are likely to do and what they are to produce," said Heywood Sanders, a University of Texas-San Antonio expert on publicly financed economic development. "Folks get into these things with great expectation and they just don't play out. The question becomes, What have you gotten for this?"'
Commissioner Emma Darnell, whose district include the site, argued those concerns were misplaced. She produced memos showing county staff had substantially scaled back the project to fit current fiscal reality.
Expectations now call for a 7,000-square-foot community center with a focus on aviation, tentatively named the Fulton County Aviation Cultural Center, she said. It would include aviation exhibits, including a permanent one honoring the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed black fighter squadron in World War II.
While Brown Field has no direct link to the Tuskegee unit, there is an active Atlanta chapter of the fighter group that, among other projects, raises money for youth development and academic performance programs. Several of the airmen attended last week's hearing when the county approved the project.
Darnell emphasized the facility would still include educational programs, possibly including aviation training, to attract young people to aviation careers.
"It's not just a place you go to walk through," said Darnell, comparing it to the Abernathy Arts Center in Sandy Springs. "I expect to see children and young people there, engaged in programs."
Kim Anderson, who lives in Carroll Heights by the airport, said her seven kids are well served by the recreation center in nearby Adamsville.
"I really think they should spend the money on schools and programs they already have," the 29-year-old said.
Former Kennesaw State University Business School Dean Tim Mescon questioned whether a limited museum would have much inspirational value or be worth the investment.
"That is almost like a toe in the water," he said. "You don't want to condemn it but it appears it is a pet project for somebody."
Mescon, who is now president of Columbus State University, said his university's experience running the Challenger Learning Center at the Coca-Cola Space Science Center in Columbus showed the county would probably need full-time fundraisers to develop exciting and high-quality education programs.
"We are constantly raising support for it and looking for federal grants to support it," he said.
Bob Dubiel, spokesman for the Museum of Aviation at Warner Robins, agreed.
"Our education program is the largest thing we do and the most expensive thing we do," he said. "You can't do it with pictures on the wall and old airplanes. You have to engage them in education programs and make it fun for them to learn about aviation.
"We have a knock-your-eyes out flight simulator - after 15 seconds, you think you're in a jet - but we're not teaching kids how to become fighter pilots. We're teaching them the math, science and technology and how it applies to aviation in hope they will become more interested in math and science. It is really hands-on and it really excites them. But you're talking about another big operation there."
Darnell said the center at the airport wouldn't just be for kids. The county had an obligation, she said, to fulfill its promise of more than a decade ago to provide a community center to the small neighborhoods like Carroll Heights and nearby Collier Heights.
Former county Community Development Director Nancy Leathers, who oversaw initial plans for the museum, said that in 1999 the county had viewed building a museum and a community center at the airport as a way to end neighborhood complaints about Brown Field.
"Great ideas never go away," said Lethers, now head of community developments for Sandy Springs. "They just hang around until you find money for them."