L. Douglas Wilder traveled to Fredericksburg on Friday to reveal some key details about the National Slavery Museum that he is building in the city.
For example, the Richmond mayor and former governor said, the museum will have a 190-foot-tall, full-scale replica of a slave ship, which could become the world's largest indoor ship model.
There was, however, another towering entity lurking in the conference room at the museum offices: the shadow of the biggest controversy in the city's contemporary history.
Since 1998, Fredericksburg politics have been defined in many ways by a swiftly taken City Council vote to rezone land for a local developer. The vote resulted in the 2,400-acre Celebrate Virginia complex, a "retail resort" and the city's largest building project. Now under construction, the project will include golf, shopping, water sports and the slavery museum.
Some council members and residents have seethed since that vote, and bitterness has spilled onto the museum.
Officials have complained that the museum was not giving them enough information about its fundraising progress and plans despite a $1 million loan from the city. Although conflict had seemed to be ebbing, discord exploded this month when the museum asked that $30,000 in building permit fees be waived as an economic development gesture.
The council voted 4 to 3 not to do so without more information. The museum withdrew the request, saying it did not want to create controversy. But the museum was creating more, including speculation that Wilder was about to yank the huge cultural project back to his home city of Richmond.
Two weeks and lots of bitter back-and-forth later, the museum announced a news conference for Friday, at which board members and Wilder, the museum founder, made public the hiring of the builder used for the National Museum of the American Indian and showed architectural designs by C.C. Pei, son of Louvre pyramid creator I.M. Pei. And museum Director Vonita W. Foster said the museum has raised about $50 million, or one-fourth of its goal.
The city and the museum said Friday that everything was smoothed over and vowed to communicate better, but the sourness of the recent back-and-forth reflects what many involved in civic life already knew: The ghosts of 1998 are not dead.
Many residents remain angry about the abrupt vote to bring more retail to the historic city. They also remain suspicious about the museum deal with developer Silver Cos., which donated 38 acres for the museum in its Celebrate Virginia complex. Under the terms of the $1 million loan from the city, the money cannot be spent on the actual museum, but on infrastructure for all of Celebrate Virginia -- a requirement that has come under criticism.
"The bottom line is, we support the project but we just want some basic information," City Council member Matt Kelly said. "If people ask for money from the city, it's the only responsible thing to do."
But others in the region think the museum is being held to a higher standard because it is affiliated with Silver and has become caught up in a long-running feud over growth.
Council member Deborah Girvan -- elected last year in a vote in which two critics of Silver, then-Mayor William Beck and then-Vice Mayor Scott Howson, were defeated -- said the four council members who demanded more information from the museum were "micromanaging." She also said the council doesn't have the expertise to know how to judge fundraising data even if it had the information.
"I think there is a mistrust that's been created. We don't need to have the attitude of people being on trial," she said.
That mistrust has been evident in the past couple of weeks, with Howson writing an editorial in the local newspaper, accusing the museum of acting with "secrecy and lack of vision."
Foster refused to communicate with the Free Lance-Star, whose editorial page mocked her comment that the museum and the city were partners. "Parasite-host, regrettably, comes closer," it said. Foster was then quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch as saying the museum needs partners who are "visionary, fair and unbiased."
Wilder attempted to move the conversation elsewhere Friday, focusing on fundraising. He said the project will get more financial support from corporate heavy hitters once they see whom the museum had hired: the builder, architect and designer. He said it was not local politics that delayed the project from its initial expected opening date of 2003 to fall 2007. Rather, it was the much larger politics of deciding how to tell the story of slavery, he said.
"To be blunt, that's what has bogged us down for a minimum of a year," Wilder said. "We had too many academicians. We were spending far too much time on ideology."
Wilder said ground would be broken this fall on the project. Exhibit designers from California-based Henley Co. said the museum will be something of a "journey" for visitors. For example, families will be separated during part of the exhibit, as slave families were, museum spokesman Michael Smith said.
"Our main intention," said Lyn S. Henley, "is to evoke an emotional reaction."