The first thing retired Rear Adm. Gus Eggert did was to hand out pages from the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum visitors log to St. Mary's County commissioners.
"We get more visitors in our humble surroundings than any other museum or attraction in St. Mary's County," Eggert said. (Actually, Point Lookout draws more, but who's counting?) "Last year we had 57,000 visitors." In the past two weeks alone, nearly 4,000 people came in to look at planes, flight trainers, unmanned vehicles and engines, he told the commissioners at their meeting Tuesday.
The humble surroundings are two metal storage buildings next to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Lexington Park. They were never meant to be a permanent home for the museum, where visitors can see how planes have been designed, built and tested.
For years, museum backers have been trying to get the new museum off the ground. They have a design, with soaring glass panels and a skinned F-18 suspended from the ceiling. In their original plan, announced in 1997, the facility was to open this month.
But they still need money.
The cost of the new building was estimated at $6.5 million, Eggert said, and that is likely to have gone up since then.
Over the years, the museum project has received sizable grants: $3.4 million from a federal highway bill, and funds totaling $475,000 from the state that needed to be matched dollar for dollar.
And they've had setbacks. Expected county money was diverted for use in demolishing the Lexington Manor apartments in the flight path of aircraft from the naval base. There has also been a series of "No's" when they've asked for more than $30,000 a year from the county to help pay operating costs. Private fundraising trickles, rather than floods, in.
Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large), president of the Board of County Commissioners, said the county has had to pay much more than expected of the Lexington Manor costs. "We had hoped to receive some federal relocation assistance, more than we did, for families in that neighborhood.
"A year ago we were thinking the county would spend $1.5 million" on demolition and relocation costs, he said. "Now we're looking at the county spending $5 million. . . . That, quite frankly, gives me grave concern. It really, really bothers me."
Eggert said he and the association supporting the museum agreed with the need to spend money to take care of Lexington Manor. "That was more important." The county wants to demolish the apartments as part of a plan to help ensure that Pax River is not placed on the federal government's list of bases to be closed. But a year and a half after committing to that project, McKay said, "the county is being left with a much larger bill than we had figured on. It gives us a challenge in figuring out other things on our priority list."
That means more county help for the museum has been pushed back until 2006, said Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills). Since they are eager to get rid of another building on the property and make access to the museum easier from busy Route 235, Raley suggested they might use money they've raised -- if donors agree -- to match the state dollars and get started.
"I don't understand why we can't use the federal money," Eggert said during Tuesday's discussion at the county commissioners meeting.
"We can," Raley said, "but I submit to you it's going to take longer.
"It's kind of like going through a minefield here," Raley said. "You have to go to the next step."
Eggert said the museum group also is considering a scaled-back building that would be more energy-efficient, without so much glass, that would cost less to build and operate.
Eggert and Keith Fairfax, another association member, left with support from the county (to be formalized in a legal memorandum of understanding), but no new money.
"People come in daily and say: 'When are you going to break ground? When are we going to see the new building?' " Eggert told the commissioners. "You've never seen a guy tap-dance as fast as I do trying to answer that question."