By editorial board • 

Don’t let museum fall to pair coveting its carcass

The three key figures in a $25 million lawsuit filed last month in federal court — plaintiff Steve Down and defendants Paul R. Peterson and J.W. Millegan — share certain similarities.

They are ambitious entrepreneurs who harbor big dreams and take high-stakes risks in pursuit of those dreams. They have suffered financial reverses, been targeted by regulators, been dragged into court battles and stood accused of shady practices. And they rely on outside investors to finance their endeavors.

But two differences set Down apart from his foes in this case:

First, he has tasted not only failure, but success. Though part of that success remains under threat pending resolution of an SEC investigation, he has built the kind of business empire the others can only dream of.

Second, he is one of two major landlords for Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum’s facilities. And the museum’s long-term viability depends on sweetheart deals granted by its landlords for its continued use of a $150 million campus.

According to the lawsuit, Down’s antagonists were intent on acquiring the property for themselves, and conspired to damage his company badly enough to force a default on financing for its $10.9 million deal.

They went so far, the suit alleges, as to approach Down’s lenders about purchasing first secured positions. If true, that could have set them up to take control of key museum facilities, including its space exhibit hall, in the event of a Down default.

Lending credence to the concerns, Millegan has long harbored dreams of developing an international equestrian resort in the Yamhill Valley. And he has talked openly of coveting the museum campus as a potential site, after being thwarted in efforts to acquire full development rights on acreage in the West Valley.

For his part, Peterson unleashed a furious attack on the museum the day after he and Millegan were targeted in the legal action. In a letter copied to Gov. Kate Brown, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici and others, he accused the museum of subverting its mission, dishonoring veterans and acquiescing to if not engaging in a “culture of corruption, fear and intimidation.”

He said, “The active cover-up of what has every appearance of an ongoing criminal enterprise on campus, the threats of violent physical assault against teachers, the wrongful termination of accounting staff because they ‘knew too much’ or wouldn’t bend the rules for Steve Down ... this all has to end through leadership embracing swift and consequential changes to its relationship with the mission, membership and community.” As a result, he suggested the museum might “be closing its doors for the last time soon.”

Both men have tried to portray themselves as museum supporters. In fact, they used Down’s sale of two aviation exhibits as their initial point of attack against him.

But Millegan’s actions and Peterson’s words are suspect at best. It seems their interest lies in the infrastructure, not the museum itself.

The museum needs consistency and independence to thrive in the future. According to staff and board members, Down is providing that and then some.

Down has sold two planes from an inventory of more than 140. His detractors threaten the institute itself.

Planes can be replaced, but the institution cannot. We all suffer if it fails.

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