By editorial board • 

Cloud of concern continues to envelop air and space museum

Last summer, we applauded the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum’s emergence from a morass of high-risk corporate bankruptcies with its campus and exhibits largely intact. We closed our paean on a decidedly upbeat note, noting, “For the first time in years, the future is fairly clear for the Evergreen campus, which in itself is worth celebrating.”

But we were, it appears, dead wrong.

It’s never a good sign when your chief benefactor, the flamboyant entrepreneur you’re counting on for your salvation, finds himself simultaneously trying to reverse flagging financial fortunes and fend off federal fraud investigators. This is the situation now facing Steve Down, with whom the beleagured museum seems to have irredeemably cast its fate.

The museum grew from the vision of another flamboyant entrepreneur, the irrepressible Del Smith. The aviation mogul built it as a shrine to his lost son and successor, a young fighter pilot who died in a high-speed car crash.

As he added a theater, water park and chapel by turns, and poured the foundation for an ambitious lodging facility, the operation gradually grew into an educational, recreational and entertainment attraction of no small dimension. In the process, its valuation on the tax rolls has exceeded $150 million, and we figure even that lofty sum underestimates its overall value to the community. 

But Smith spent most of his career teetering on the edge of fiscal precipices, which caught up with him in his final years. His over-leveraged web of aviation entities suffered a spectacular collapse that inevitably engulfed his beloved museum as well.

By the time he died, he had lost virtually everything but his palatial Dundee estate, now on the market as well. That leaves the museum as his sole lasting legacy.
An asset befitting one of America’s great cities, it looms large in the cultural and economic life of our community of 33,000. Perhaps that has led us to wallow unduly in hope.

Once vowing to proceed with imminent construction of a hotel, and on an even larger scale than Smith envisioned, Down has since been reduced to surreptitiously hawking two of the most popular planes in the museum collection.

He owns seven more, which doesn’t bode well. A museum without enough worthy exhibits risks losing its allure, and the stakes rise when it lacks a major local population center to fall back on.

We will never stop wishing the best for the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. We join its late founder in viewing it with special pride and endowing it with singular importance. How could we not see it as the brightest star in the local firmament?

But we must also counsel taking a realistic view.

Magnificent as it may seem, this local feature by no means enjoys a guaranteed lease on life. No person, agency or institution gets that. It’s going to take all the astute guidance we can collectively muster in this community to help the museum maintain its footing and continue carrying out its mission unimpeded.


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