This is part two in a two-part Waste Watch investigation into Medicine Park spending. Click here to see part one.
Slow and steady wins the race. It's an old adage that has never held more meaning for community leaders in Medicine Park. "Building something on the side of one of these quartz mountains is a pretty difficult process," said Dwight Cope the mayor of Medicine Park, "but we're coming along."
Mayor Cope is also the president of the board of directors for the Medicine Park Aquarium and Museum of Natural Sciences. "When we set out to do something we're going to get it done." The project broke ground in 2011, but there is still no foundation as construction continues on the side of a mountain just outside the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.
The Aquarium project progress is going much slower than community leaders had hoped. "Had not some of our local folks that are against everything thrown a curve ball into the process and taken us six months to get past we probably would have made that deadline," Mayor Cope told Fox 25.
"I'm sorry people think that but that's just not the truth," said the project's chief critic Larry Meese.
Meese lives in Medicine Park and was originally a volunteer for the project. "I thought it was great, I really did, why else would I volunteer my time if I didn't think it was a good thing and potentially good thing for our community?"
Meese said he left the project after discovering concerns about the management of funds, including state tax dollars and a $300,000 loan from the Comanche County Industrial Development Authority.
That loan includes a performance-based repayment and the contract says the town must employee 20 full-time employees by July 1, 2013 or risk repayment. "That date was an arbitrary date that was set by us, because we intended to be open by that time," Cope said. The town plans to ask Comanche County for an extension of its loan in order to allow more time to get the project up and running.
Included in Meese's concerns are the purchases made by the aquarium before a building was even built. "The simple fact of acquiring an animal before you have an appropriate animal containment facility just didn't make any sense to me," Meese said.
Records show the town of Medicine Park reimbursed the director $2,000 for the purchase of the cub before the city had a building or even a cage to house the animals.
Besides a cougar cub, the museum also acquired porcupines, prairie dogs and turtles. Meese says many of the animals, including the cougar, were kept in the garage of one of the project's volunteers. In the end the city had to return the cub for credit, but the porcupines, prairie dogs and some turtles died.
"It was probably my desire most because it is going to be a museum of natural science which will include animal exhibits of the regional variety," Mayor Cope said. However, the mayor says it became apparent the town should focus on building the aquarium prior to purchasing animals.
"I'm not saying we're perfect and there haven't been mistakes made," Cope told Fox 25, "But there is nothing mischievous, malicious or anything else."
"If they want to build a museum that's fine," said Meese. "Set it up get your own money from your own sources, build your museumdon't ask the public to put their money in it and build something that unfortunately, if it doesn't work out, how does a small community of 400 people pay to maintain something that may or may never be sold."
The project leaders say they are creating a first class facility that will be open sometime this year. You can see renderings of the proposed museum by clicking here.
The project will soon come under the review of the Oklahoma State Auditor. Meese and other critics of the project collected signatures to call for the audit.
Meese says he and other critics could potentially support the project again if it included more oversight and promised proof of viability for Medicine Park.
Mayor Cope says the state auditor will find no fault with the way the town has collected funds or distributed them. "It could have been planned out a little bit better but like I said this is kind of a new process for us. We're learning as we go and we're trying our hardest to do the right thing."
The questions about the museum, its construction and its location don't end here, click here to see part two of the Fox 25 Waste Watch Special Report.