Salt Lake City leaders plan to meet next week with This Is the Place Heritage Park officials to discuss the care of city-owned historic artifacts.
A former park curator has accused the park of violating a contract to keep those one-of-a-kind items maintained. The park has a replica fireman's social hall, Ottinger Hall, that was built in 2000 and houses old artifacts from the city's first fire department, built in 1899.
The meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, comes just a week before the Division of State Parks and Recreation board votes on whether the state-owned, privately run park can lease 12 acres of land to the University of Utah's Research Park for an administrative building and parking lot.
Board members at the park voted in March for the lease, which would bring in a much-needed $400,000 a year. The lease was the idea of developer Ellis Ivory, the chairman of the park's board, who hopes to generate revenue for the park that has been plagued by financial turmoil left over from former park leadership. Ivory is also chairman of the Deseret Morning News board of directors.
But east-bench residents have been upset about the lease plans — and so has Larry H. Miller.
The Utah Jazz owner donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to build Ottinger Hall on park grounds.
"I think it's a mistake because you can never get the land back once you develop it into something else, and that park's got the potential to be really cool," he said Wednesday. "So why give up 12 acres that 10 or 50 or 100 years from now you wish you had it back?"
According to a contract between the city and the state-owned park, the city lent the fire-department artifacts to the park under the condition that the park would care for and maintain them. The park was also required to employ a curator and keep the Ottinger Hall museum open to the public.
However, since the museum's opening, it has mostly been closed and used only for special events. The curator, Kenyon Kennard, resigned in May 2006.
Matt Dahl, the park's executive director, said Wednesday that the Ottinger Hall items have been cared for and maintained. The hall has been closed because of the living history site's limited funds, which make it difficult to keep all the buildings open. And the park is in the process of hiring various curators with different expertise on a contractual basis.
Kennard, however, has been vocal over his concern with how the historic pioneer artifacts at the park have been treated. He said that was one of the reasons he quit last year.
"These things belong to the people of Utah, and with that come certain things that have to be performed," he said. "There's some terribly significant objects there. There are objects there that are priceless."
Kennard recently contacted Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson to inform him of the breach of contract. The former curator also alleges that some artifacts have been destroyed by a leaky roof. Dahl, meanwhile, says the leak was fixed long ago and no artifacts were destroyed.
Dahl organized the meeting between the park and city. Neither the city nor the state has talked about a contract violation with the park.
Patrick Thronson, spokesman for Anderson, said the city lent the artifacts with the agreement that they would be cared for. He said the city was alerted a couple of weeks ago "that this could be a potential issue, and there may be a violation of that agreement."
"They're historic artifacts from the city's fire department — captains' helmets, equipment, uniforms, many of which ... national organizations and museums have been interested in," he said. "They are rare in terms of what exists in other areas of the country in that era of firefighting."
Meanwhile, signatures are adding up on an online petition seeking to put ownership of the park in state hands. Kennard set up the site www.savetheplace.net to try to garner a half-million signatures to send to the governor and other state leaders. As of Wednesday, Kennard's group had almost 800 signatures.
The group members disapprove of the 12-acre, 50-year land lease and say the private foundation that now guides the park is failing to protect the area's historical value and setting.
Contributing: Linda Hamilton, Doug Smeath