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US Slavery Museum debt plan opposed by Va. city

Tuesday - 7/24/2012, 2:06pm  ET

By STEVE SZKOTAK
Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. - The city of Fredericksburg opposes the latest proposal by planners of the U.S. National Slavery Museum to dig out from $7 million debt, arguing it lacks specifics and is overly optimistic.

The city's objections take aim at a third reorganization plan filed by an attorney for the proposed museum. The museum's debt plan outlines an ambitious fund-raising schedule and proposes the sale of a portion of the Fredericksburg land where the museum was to be built overlooking the Rappahannock River.

Fredericksburg's treasurer's office, which is owed back taxes totaling nearly $300,000, said the proposed reorganization plan "is highly speculative" and hinges on factors beyond the control of museum backers.

"Given the history of the debtor and the current climate for development of its project, the proposed plan does not appear to be feasible or realistic," Jeffrey Scharf, an attorney for the city, said in a filing Tuesday with U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Douglas O. Tice Jr. will consider the plan's feasibility when he is asked to confirm it. A hearing is scheduled Aug. 15 to discuss the plan and other matters.

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder began publicly advocating for the museum a decade ago and began lining up backers and donations. By 2007, however, giving to the proposed museum began to dry up, and construction never began.

Wilder and an attorney representing the museum's board, Sandra R. Robinson, have repeatedly declined to comment on the bankuptcy filings outside of court.

Wilder, the grandson of slaves and the nation's first elected black governor, has said he was inspired to create a museum to tell of the nation's lucrative commerce in human enslavement after he visited Africa 20 years ago. He assembled a board that included distinguished African Americans and enlisted the financial support of entertainer Bill Cosby, but could not sustain fundraising.

Robinson filed for Chapter 11 protection last September, hoping to keep creditors at bay while she worked on a plan to get the museum back on track.

In her latest filing earlier this month, Robinson continued to pitch a plan that anticipates annual fund-raising of nearly $1 million to repay creditors. She also proposed the sale of more than half of 38 acres in Fredericksburg where the museum was to rise.

Scharf has scoffed at the fundraising plan, arguing the down economy and other planned museums in Washington, D.C., and Richmond would keep donations down.

"The debtor's entire reorganization plan depends on the munificence of the general public, or perhaps a few well-heeled philanthropists and their willingness to contribute to an organization that has struggled to raise funds, has failed to commence work on its mission, and is now trying to emerge from the shadow of bankruptcy," Scharf wrote.

He adds that the museum had never exceeded annual fundraising of $500,000 in its most active years.

The museum also faces opposition to its plan to sell a portion of the Fredericksburg land, which is assessed at $7.6 million.

Attorneys for Celebrate Virginia South, a development company that donated the land to the museum, are seeking to convert the case to Chapter 7.

Scharf also questioned that proposal, saying there are "a whole host of questions about the ability of the museum to actually sell the land."

The museum's largest creditor, Pei Partnership Architects, is owed approximately $5.2 million. An attorney for the company has said Pei is willing to consider a reorganization plan rather than a liquidation.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)