Note: This story was last updated at 12:10 p.m.
U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz will attend the land transfer ceremony for the American Museum of Science and Energy property in Oak Ridge next week.
The ceremony is scheduled for Friday, December 30. Also expected to attend are U.S. Congressman Chuck Fleischmann and City of Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch.
It’s a signing ceremony to formally transfer the roughly 17-acre AMSE site from the U.S. Department of Energy to the City of Oak Ridge.
Under an agreement unanimously approved by Oak Ridge City Council on December 13, the city is then expected to transfer the property in two phases to a company set up by RealtyLink, the South Carolina firm building Main Street Oak Ridge at the site of the former Oak Ridge Mall.
In exchange for the AMSE land transfer, the city is providing what it calls prime alternative space to DOE in order for the department to continue its various public education and outreach efforts such as those now conducted at the 54,000-square-foot AMSE. About 15,000 square feet is used for exhibit space, not including the lobby, officials said last week.
Under the agreement unanimously approved by City Council during a special meeting last week, the AMSE missions will be relocated within about one year to 18,000 square feet of space in a two-story building that once housed a Sears store next to JCPenney at Main Street Oak Ridge. That space, once finished, will be provided by TN Oak Ridge Illinois LLC, a Main Street Oak Ridge company, to the city at no cost for 15 years.
The city will, in turn, sublease the former Sears space to DOE at no charge for 15 years, and it can be used for the public outreach and education missions now conducted at AMSE—as well as for a temporary visitor center for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. That visitor center is now housed at AMSE.
The southern portion of the AMSE property, or about 7.5 acres between the tree line and South Illinois Avenue, will be transferred first to TN Oak Ridge Illinois LLC. It could be transferred in late 2016 or early 2017, according to the resolution approved by Council this month. Officials expect that parcel to be developed within about two years.
AMSE would have about one year at its current location before it would move to Main Street Oak Ridge.
The transfer of the northern portion of the AMSE site, which includes the building itself, will occur later, after the museum moves to Main Street.
Advocating for the land transfer this summer, RealtyLink said that any development on the AMSE property that competes with Main Street Oak Ridge could hurt its 58-acre $92 million mixed-use town center, where development has started and which is expected to include retailers, restaurants, residential units, and a hotel.
AMSE is across South Tulane Avenue from Main Street Oak Ridge. The concern was that if the AMSE site was developed after Main Street Oak Ridge, tenants might relocate from Main Street Oak Ridge to the AMSE site after their five-year leases expire, leaving empty buildings at Main Street and possibly causing other tenants to leave.
In June, Council authorized Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson to enter into land transfer negotiations with RealtyLink and DOE. The Department of Energy owns the museum but has said it is not in the museum business. The department had earlier asked the federal General Services Administration, or GSA, to help it dispose of the property.
The property transfer agreement approved during the special City Council meeting last week is a follow-up to Council’s earlier authorization of negotiations.
City officials said the agreement approved last week gives AMSE a 15-year reprieve. Other possible, less desirable outcomes could have been the closure of AMSE or having DOE get rid of the museum through the GSA, where it could have been liquidated, officials said. Then, the museum would be gone, and the city would not have had any control of the development of the AMSE property along South Tulane and South Illinois avenues in central Oak Ridge, officials said.
DOE has made it clear that they were going to transfer the property and preferred to work with the city, Gooch said last week. The alternative was to sell it through GSA, he said.
At this point, it’s not clear what might happen to the AMSE employees or the building itself—whether it would be torn down or re-used—or what might happen to the museum’s relocated missions after 15 years. It’s also not clear whether the relocated museum missions will still be referred to as the American Museum of Science and Energy. It’s also not clear what the long-term plans for the National Park Service visitor center might be. The park, which includes Oak Ridge, was formally established about a year ago, and planning is still under way.
There have been various proposals to help secure the future of AMSE dating back to at least 2000. At least one proposal involved the City of Oak Ridge, and another involved Oak Ridge Associated Universities, which is next door to AMSE. There was a series of community meetings on the future of AMSE in 2014. But none of the previous proposals have led to an agreement like the one approved last week.
One of the key questions seemed to be about funding. Officials have said the museum has not transitioned to a self-supporting operation, and there are no big donors. While the museum has revenues from admissions and memberships, most of its funding comes from three DOE sites in Oak Ridge: East Tennessee Technology Park, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Y-12 National Security Complex. In Fiscal Year 2015, they gave $1.5 million to the museum. Officials have said the museum’s operating and labor costs have been as high as $1.7 million to $1.8 million per year, and there have been reports that DOE is interested in cutting its costs. DOE has said AMSE is “over-sized” and “operationally challenged.”
Still, the museum is considered a top tourist attraction. One community leader said last week that the museum has had 8.8 million visitors total over the years, and now has about 65,000 visitors per year.
In part, the museum helps tells the history of Oak Ridge. The city was built during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project, a top-secret federal program to build the world’s first atomic weapons. But there are other exhibits at AMSE, including scientific exhibits, in addition to community meetings and presentations in the museum’s auditoriums.
The museum opened in 1949 in an old wartime cafeteria. Located off Jefferson Avenue, it was originally named the American Museum of Atomic Energy. Its guided tours took visitors through the peaceful uses of atomic energy. The present facility opened in 1975, and it continues to provide the public with energy information. The name of the museum was changed to the American Museum of Science and Energy in 1978.
As part of the agreement approved last week, TN Oak Ridge Illinois LLC will provide community-oriented amenities such as bicycle and pedestrian paths and “enhanced” landscaping on the AMSE property. In return, the city will include about 1.87 acres of city-owned land adjacent to the AMSE property in order to increase the size of the area that can be developed. The 1.87 acres would include the Tulane Place roadway, a roughly 12.5-foot wide strip of right-of-way along the eastern side of Badger Road (the city would retain any easements needed for power poles), and a triangular parcel between the Oak Ridge Municipal Building and the AMSE property.
TN Oak Ridge Illinois LLC will be responsible for the relocation of any and all utilities required to “maximize” the development of the AMSE property, according to the agreement.
The December 30 signing ceremony starts at 9 a.m. at Pollard Technology Conference Center at 210 Badger Avenue in Oak Ridge.
See the story on the City Council’s approval of the land transfer here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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