Reported By: Jordan Vandenberge
Eyewitness News learns one of Evansville's most successful and most giving businessmen is reportedly withdrawing his donations from a number of the city's cultural organizations. Officials say this comes after the executive directors of those organizations announced their support of the mere concept of a convention hotel.
Now, those organizations have become collateral damage in the hotel debate.
At the empty lot behind the Ford Center in Evansville, a line has been drawn in the sand.
In an email obtained by Eyewitness News, Lu Porter, the Executive Director of the Evansville African American Museum, alerted other museum directors of the looming dilemma involving one of their key donors, John Dunn.
Dunn, President and CEO of Dunn Hospitality, has been one of the more vocal opponents of the convention hotel project.
In the email, Porter says Dunn informed her that, 'he would no longer be supporting the African American Museum, Williard Library, The Reitz Home, the Children's Museum of Evansville, the Evansville Museum, the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitor's Bureau all because of their support of the concept of a new convention center hotel in downtown Evansville.
However, the group has not endorsed a specific financing plan or potential builder for the hotel.
This e-mail conversation came just hours after the final public hotel meeting last Thursday and it's already having an impact.
Officials say Dunn pulled his $1500 table from the African American Museum and Dunn's memberships at the Reitz Home could soon come off the table.
All in all, thousands of dollars in donations could cease to exist for these already cash-strapped organizations.
"I think it's disappointing that these organizations that rely on tourism and conventions are threatened by a lack of funding," said Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke. "Certainly, it's [the museum's] goal and mission to bring people to town. But if someone wants to pull funding, it's their right and responsibility."
Dunn's company owns and operates 5 hotels in the Evansville area.
Dunn himself has previously expressed his concerns about using inkeeper's tax money to partly fund the city's committment for the hotel project.
Executive directors of these organizations say the convention hotel would potentially bring more people through the front door of the city's museums. But just supporting the mere concept of the hotel could cost donations that keep those front doors open.
Matt Rowe, the Executive Director of the Reitz Home Museum releasted the following statement.
"While I cannot comment on specifics about our donors, I can tell you that we are about to publish our membership roster for 2013. Dunn Hospitality does not appear on the roster this year, nor do John and Gail Dunn. The Reitz Home Museum has a long history with John and Gail. She has served on our Board in the past, and they have been good friends of this organization over the years. I hope their involvement with the Reitz Home Museum continues.
Our intention when I spoke at the hotel meeting last week was to express how important we believe it is for the City to have a new convention hotel downtown, but not to expressly endorse any plan for financing or any particular builder of the hotel."
He also gave Eyewitness News a copy of his speech at last Thursday's public meeting regarding the hotel. Rowe spoke on behalf of Greg Hager of Willard Library, Lu Porter of the Evansville African American Museum, John Scott Foster of Wesselman Nature Society and Stephanie Terry of Children's Museum of Evansville.
"I'm here this evening on behalf of the Executive Directors 6 of our cities most important cultural organizations, all of which are located in close proximity to the proposed new hotel. This group met earlier this week to discuss our thoughts about a downtown hotel. It was quickly evident that we unanimously support the idea and believe it will benefit each of our organizations, as well as our entire city. The cultural amenities we enjoy in Evansville are impressive. Museums, libraries, a symphony orchestra, our historic district, and the urban oasis of a hardwood forest. By giving up on attracting convention business, we're giving up on a constant stream of new visitors and pedestrian traffic who will enhance and sustain our cultural attractions with their presence and their money. We are so close to having a cultural renaissance in our downtown, but the hotel is the missing piece of economic development to make it happen. Since the Executive Inn has closed, I've seen the number of visitors from convention traffic taper off at the Reitz Home Museum. Visitors who paid admission fees, catered luncheons in our facility, and spent money in our gift shop. These cultural organizations survive on tight budgets, and the loss of this kind of revenue makes a big difference. A vibrant downtown area full of people and activity will benefit our cultural attractions by helping us to sustain them into the future for the benefit of Evansville residents and visitors alike."
Stephanie Terry of the Children's Museum of Evansville also released the following statement.
"The Koch Family Children’s Museum of Evansville (cMoe) is pleased to have been gifted a historic building in 2004 as part of downtown revitalization efforts. We recognize that a vibrant downtown area full of people and activity can benefit the museum, and we support further development of the area. We thank the community for its support over the last seven years and look forward to positively impacting children, families and communities for many years to come."