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PPP loan, free rent weren't enough to stabilize finances for museum, charter school

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Emily Reid hangs a sign on a fence at the Portland Childrens Museum during a rally in late March. Parent organizers now say they've ceased efforts to revive the museum. As parents, museum members and community supporters pressed for answers and solutions to revive the Portland Children's Museum, board members geared up for dissolution.

Now, it appears all efforts to revive the museum have ceased.

The museum board plans to pay off any debt and divert remaining cash assets to another nonprofit aligned with the museum's mission.

Additionally, a parent group that organized rallies, hired an attorney and raised $2,890 via a crowdfunding campaign also has halted its efforts.

Parent organizers had hoped to seat a new board of directors for the museum and start anew, but after a few months of dead-end conversations and a modest fundraising effort, they too, announced plans to stop trying.

Elisabeth Utas made the announcement May 7 to a Facebook group of nearly 3,000 members that she and other organizers were "throwing in the towel," citing a stalemate with existing museum board members.

"My hope is that we can reimagine the Portland Children's Museum in some way or another in the future," Utas said. "Perhaps, we can still create a non-profit and work on setting up a new museum, somewhere else within the city."

The nearly $2,400 in GoFundMe campaign money raised by parents can't be refunded to donors. Instead, Utas and others plan to give the money to Gilbert House Children's Museum in Salem.

After the Children's Museum, adjoining Opal School and preschool abruptly announced in March their plans to close permanently, parents rallied to try to save the beloved Portland institution. They said news of the indefinite closure came suddenly and without warning.

The museum has been closed to the public for more than a year due to coronavirus restrictions.

Opaque problems

While some parents and supporters said they had no idea the organization was in dire straits, the museum's board president said the organization already was trying to restore its financial health before the pandemic.

Portland Children's Museum Board President David Peterson said the museum was trying to pay off debt, build the nonprofit organization's reserves and grow its donor base. Then COVID-19 hit.

In mid-March 2020, when the museum had to close its doors to visitors, the museum laid off nearly all of its 70 staff members, according to Peterson. The remaining 22 employees were Opal School staffers who were kept on. The Opal School is a public charter school run in conjunction with the museum.

"We were forced to make the heartbreaking decision to eliminate nearly all museum employees or risk running out of funds in less than one month," Peterson said.

In an effort to help keep operations afloat, the nonprofit applied for and received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan for $551,800. Peterson said nearly all that money went to the school.

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - A child peers through the doors of the shuttered Portland Childrens Museum.The board president said the charter school received 70% to 80% of the level of funding that neighborhood public schools get, so the board and administration used federal loan funds to pay staff salaries and insurance.

"The PPP loan covered the salaries and insurance of the remaining staff through October 2020," Peterson said. "In March 2021, we submitted necessary documentation to evidence appropriate use of these funds and the loan was fully forgiven."

The Children's Museum supported teacher and administrator salaries, as well as other school costs and shared overhead costs, Peterson said. "Even while closed to the public, we still face monthly expenses for skyrocketing unemployment insurance, health insurance, liability insurance, equipment leases, bank fees, professional services, website, IT, vendors, subscriptions, etc., plus an operating school," Peterson said. "Unfortunately, our outreach efforts came in far below our goal, making it clear that the many challenges facing the museum, the impact of the pandemic, and the rapid timeline required to generate funds were insurmountable," Peterson said.

One thing the organization didn't have to worry about while closed? Rent.

The museum building is owned by the city of Portland, which hasn't charged rent for the space.

"(Portland Parks & Recreation) owns the building and received notice on Thursday, March 25, that the Children's Museum's board had voted to formally begin the dissolution process," Mark Ross, a spokesman for the city's parks department, confirmed. "The Children's Museum's paid $10 total for their 30-year lease term."

Ross said the city will consider options for the space, moving forward.

Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, whose district includes the museum, said there hasn't been any county-level discussions about a permanent funding solution.

"Like many others, I was deeply saddened to hear about the closure of the Portland Children's Museum, and, like many others, I didn't learn about it until after the closure had occurred," Meieran said. "It is a beloved asset not just in my district, but for the region. I have not been aware or part of any conversations at the County about potential funding for PCM."

Meieran said she'd be "open to hearing more if the leadership or board of PCM was exploring possible, feasible options to keep the museum afloat."

Supporters left bereft

Parents and supporters gathered outside the shuttered museum in late March with signs and messages chalked on the sidewalk. They've since been using social media to convene and brainstorm ideas about how to raise money or resources, until recently.

State. Rep. Lisa Reynolds told the Connection that she, too, sought answers and solutions, to no avail.

"I've met with board members and the 'interim' director, Jani Iverson, and I've heard loud and clear — there is nothing to save," Reynolds told the Connection in April. "The board repeatedly refuses to name a 'price' or accept financial assistance. They have no capacity nor interest in reopening the museum. I wonder if we'll need to start from scratch and re-imagine a new play centered space for children."

Peterson said even an infusion of "one-time funds" wouldn't have been enough to sustain the operations. He said, because the museum and adjoining school and pre-school are part of a nonprofit, they can't transfer oversight to a government entity.

Starting from scratch might be the only path forward.

"There are other organizations in our community that serve children and provide family services," Peterson said. "We encourage the community to rally behind these entities. We also know there are early efforts underway to explore forming a new children's museum. We would love to see them succeed and wish them the best of luck."


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