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From the Roundtable: What went wrong with the YouZeum? A boondoggle from the start?

From the Roundtable: What went wrong with the YouZeum? A boondoggle from the start?

Al Germond is the host of the "Sunday Morning Roundtable" every Sunday at 8:15 a.m. on KFRU. He can be reached at [email protected]

Many of us had such high hopes for the YouZeum, an interactive project that began as a “health adventure center” amidst discrete murmurings by skeptics who considered this a cockeyed idea to begin with.

People with honorable intentions went after grants and donations that eventually tallied into the millions for the project, which was relying on some helter-skelter math that just didn’t look realistic from the start ($8 million is the number most recently posited). Our worst fear is a bailout using public funds, but that’s unlikely in any event because local and state government cupboards are pretty bare these days.

The building at 608 Cherry St. is really just another James A. Farley Post Office. The year 1935 is carved on the cornerstone, which marks the heyday of Farley’s reign as postmaster general. He was a wunderkind in President Roosevelt’s first two terms. He restored health to the department and, in the midst of the Great Depression, sprinkled the country with hundreds of these dominating emblems of government presence. The “stimulus” program of the period put thousands of construction workers back on the job.

After being used for 30 years as the city’s main post office, 608 Cherry was remodeled for use as a general-purpose federal building. When the four-columned hulk no longer fit that function, 608 Cherry was made available to various public entities, including the Columbia Board of Education, which showed varying levels of disinterest when proposed as a tenant.

608 Cherry

I’ll leave it to others to recount this tale from the project’s chrysalis as a health adventure center into the $8 million dollar YouZeum. Although the “I Told You Sos” from various quarters pump up the amplitude of their skepticisms, one wonders what went wrong. Although this might be just another one of those 503(c)(3) not-for-profit ventures, the YouZeum is still a business, and the project should have undergone all the pro forma due diligence that any other endeavor would normally have been subjected to.

Most of us don’t like alienating our friends and neighbors with negative thoughts and premature judgment. The stamp of approval bestowed by respected community leaders who might not have fully vetted the financial underpinnings naturally brought others to dive into what has become the abyss of the YouZeum. Eight million dollars later, some of us are pretty ragged off about this. Money ponied up by Mabee Foundation, Boone Hospital Center and various well-heeled individuals might come to naught.

The YouZeum’s future is rather fuzzy now, with the recent announcement of reduced hours and another head here and there rolling out the door as a sacrifice. A few perpetual optimists speak about makeovers, traveling exhibits and maybe some other magical elixirs that could rescue the project.

Phooey! The YouZeum idea is a dud, and the community needs to move on.

My greatest concern all along has been the YouZeum’s potentially destructive effect on the fundraising activities of other long-established charitable organizations including the Central Missouri Food Bank and the United Way. Eight million dollars would have fed a great many central Missourians. Imagine what just half that sum would have done for medical research.

Let’s have a more honest appraisal from a business perspective the next time a project like this comes along. In spite of possible alienation, those of us with questions should be more willing to face off with our friends before potential boondoggles get too far down the rails. The same goes for the Fourth Estate.

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