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The Daily Tar Heel

A fairer deal needed: Chapel Hill Museum should not have to bear building maintenance costs; town lease should be renegotiated

The town of Chapel Hill should renegotiate the terms of its lease with the Chapel Hill Museum. As the owner of the property, it is unfair to force the museum to pay for maintenance costs it can’t afford.

Owners — not renters — typically pay for the upkeep on their property. But the current lease reversed the responsibility.

Now the museum is having trouble paying for maintenance and has requested $50,000 a year for five years from the Chapel Hill Town Council.

The original lease was signed in 1996, said Traci Davenport, the Chapel Hill Museum’s executive director.

The building, situated on East Franklin Street across from Boundary Street, was constructed in 1968 and was originally the Chapel Hill Public Library.

It is not entirely clear why the museum would have settled for these terms to begin with. Davenport said that none of the people who negotiated the original lease are still with town government or the museum.

But it is very clear that now is the time for a new lease negotiation in which the town assumes a more traditional landlord role.

The museum provides a valuable service to the community. It houses numerous artifacts relating to Chapel Hill, including a Grammy won by James Taylor and awards of famous dramatist Paul Green.

In its walls are housed both the town’s first fire truck, the first Model T sold in Chapel Hill and artifacts and photos documenting the evolution of Franklin Street.

Patrons are supportive of the preservation and education that the museum does. It has been able to successfully operate from private donations even during the recession.

Davenport noted, though, that it’s much easier to get people to donate to an educational program than to fix leaky pipes.

The museum simply cannot afford to continue offering beneficial services to the community when faced with the costs of maintaining an aging building. And it shouldn’t have to make that trade-off. The museum isn’t the building’s owner.

Davenport described her attitude as “cautiously hopeful” with respect to the odds of getting the lease renegotiated.

But there should be no question. The town should move quickly to address the terms of an unfair lease which has long outlived its usefulness. The Chapel Hill Museum should not itself fade into history.

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