Group needs $2.9 million in donations for 3 Aiken museums

News 12 First at Five / Wednesday, Sep. 25, 2013

AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- Despite the gloomy weather, inside the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum, visitors are anything but gloomy, as yet another school group takes a tour of the museum.

"When visitors come to Aiken, this gives them a very good first impression," says Tim Simmons, with Friends of the Aiken Railroad Depot.

Now, a new fundraising campaign called 'Aiken Together' hopes to raise $2.9 million from businesses and citizens in Aiken County and beyond. 28-percent of that will go to the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum, 41-percent to the Center for African-American History, Art and Culture, and 31-percent will go to a brand new museum in Downtown Aiken called the Savannah River Site Heritage Center.

"Each one of those projects are in different stages of completion and rather than going out and competing against each other to try to raise these funds, it was decided to join forces and have one campaign," says Simmons.

But will people be willing to donate?

Aiken City Councilman Reggie Ebner admits the depot has a checkered past, and has already cost taxpayers $1.2 million, which he says is a third of its $3.6 million price-tag so far.

Then there's the Center for African-American History, which Ebner says taxpayers started paying for in 2004. The museum is still not open, and Ebner, who has examined the numbers, says it has already cost taxpayers $712,000 as of June 2012. While the building has been purchased, the interior is still a blank slate and more work needs to be done on the interior infrastructure.

"We're looking for just donations, not taxpayer dollars. Donations from the community to support that in a different way, and in a more meaningful way, with a direct contribution," says Dwayne Wilson, the CEO/President of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, who is also the Chair of Aiken Together.

Wilson and Simmons say their 5-year-plan is solid.

Aiken Together literature suggests the donations will equip the Center for African-American History with interior infrastructure, a kitchen, catering facilities, exhibit design, and exhibit construction.

At the Visitors Center and Train Museum, the money will allow interior restoration of two Pullman dining cars, construction of a baggage building, and the construction of a catering facility and restroom. Simmons says the donations will also help pay off existing debt to Security Federal. Ebner adds that approximately $500,000 of Capital Project Sales Tax III dollars will also help with some of the listed renovations. Those tax dollars have already been approved by voters.

With it's share of the pot, the Savannah River Site Heritage Center, which has yet to announce a location, will buy an interior infrastructure, exhibit design, exhibit construction, a video screening room, space for rotating exhibits, and a reception area.

While Aiken Together hopes to collect private donations only, News 12 asked Simmons if there is a chance more taxpayer dollars might be needed.

"Well, I would never say it's impossible, but that's not the intent," says Simmons. "That's not our plan at all. We fully intend to do this with private funds."

He says they've already collected $340,000 from the public.

At the train depot, which is managed by the City of Aiken, Simmons says the refurbishment of those dining cars will hopefully attract wedding receptions and others looking for catered event space.

While some question the need for additional museums with the existence of the Aiken County Historical Museum, which has exhibits on all three subject, Simmons says the museum does not have the space for what they're hoping to accomplish.

"As a whole, the three entities of Aiken Together will join in educating present and future generations of children, in further strengthening the vibrant downtown of Aiken, and in positively influencing the economic health of our community and region," the literature reads.

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