Construction delayed for new UMNH

Planners are calling their vision to build a new Utah Museum of Natural History in the unscathed foothills above Research Park a step to connect museum-goers to the outdoors.

But construction on the project has been continually delayed since 2003 and museum administrators have raised just more than half of the money needed for the building.

Museum Executive Director Sarah George said the museum must move because its current location in Presidents’ Circle is outdated and too small–the museum is able to display only a small fraction of its massive collection.

Estimates put the cost of construction around $70 million or higher. The museum reports to have raised $36 million in contributions and pledges to date.

Plans from an outside consulting group dating back to 1995 estimate that construction should have been completed in 2005. Now, almost 14 years later, building has been delayed again until sometime next spring. Plans for the new museum have been underway since 1993.

George, who has overseen the project since the beginning, said the delay is due, in part, to a controversy surrounding the museum’s new location. She said concerns about building in the foothills prompted the museum to conduct a full environmental impact study, pushing fund-raising efforts to the back burner.

“We weren’t asking people for money; the focus was elsewhere,” George said.

The museum drew criticism from some environmentalists who were upset by the idea of allowing further development in the area adjacent to Red Butte Garden. Bonneville Shoreline Trail users were also wary that the building would obstruct the trail, which runs through the site.

George said most of the complaints about the museum’s location have subsided since the final environmental impact statement was released and the museum made plans to keep and improve the trail.

With concerns about the museum’s location diminishing, George said, her focus now is to raise the capital necessary for construction.

Though the project has fallen behind schedule, Dave Pershing, senior vice president for academic affairs, said he is impressed by George’s progress.

“I think it is fair to say some of us wondered if it could ever be pulled off,” Pershing said. “She has taken what was her dream and is making it a reality.”

Pershing said he won’t give George the thumbs-up to begin construction until she has raised at least 80 percent of the total cost to build the new museum.

Critics of the museum have also questioned the practicality of building it in the foothills away from major urban areas and public transportation routes.

George said the museum is working with UTA to secure bus routes to the new museum and is planning to provide a U shuttle from TRAX.

The 1995 consultants report does not take the museum’s location into account because the site had not been selected. George said she has a draft copy of a more recent evaluation completed by the consulting firm, but would not release a copy to The Chronicle because she said it is incomplete.

George also hopes to double or triple museum attendance at the new building. Attendance at the current site declined by more than 30,000 visitors last year from its peak of more than 98,000 in 1995.

She said attendance declined sharply last year because the museum did not have a marketing director. This year’s attendance is already above the point it was at this time last year since the marketing position was filled, George said, but she couldn’t provide exact attendance numbers.

Anne Asman, the museum’s former marketing director, said she thinks the museum will likely not draw enough patrons at the location in Research Park and said George should revisit the idea of moving downtown.

“The idea that if we build it, they will come does not work anymore,” Asman said.

She said that during her time at the museum, timelines for the new building were constantly missed with little consequence.

George, however, thinks the museum’s location will give visitors the rare opportunity to experience both indoor and outdoor exhibits as well as stunning views of the Salt Lake Valley.

She said the idea of incorporating a museum into the surrounding landscape will keep visitors coming back.

“What you have to do is give people an experience better than what they expected,” George said.