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For the last 14 years, Montana Historical Society officials have been trying to secure funding for a project to protect and preserve some of our state’s greatest treasures.

Their hard work has finally paid off.

On the final day of the 2019 legislative session, the Montana Legislature passed a bill to authorize funding and construction of the Heritage Center project, which will add a 66,000-square-foot wing to the existing 93,000-square-foot MHS building near the state Capitol.

The project has been a priority for Bruce Whittenberg since he became MHS director in 2011, and officials from Gov. Steve Bullock’s office said the governor is a big supporter of the effort and intends to sign the legislation into law.

Of course, this will allow the public to see many more of the artifacts in the museum’s care.

MHS is currently able to exhibit only about 5% to 8% of its collection at one time, and it acquires another 500 to 1,000 artifacts every year. By bringing more artifacts out of storage and into the public’s view, the museum will create a richer visitor experience that will undoubtedly help bring more tourism dollars to our city and state.

Perhaps more importantly, the project will also help protect real treasures with real value.

While it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact monetary value of the museum’s collection, we know the items are worth far more than the $48 million the state expects to spend on the Heritage Center project. The artifacts also foster a deeper understanding of the history of our state and its people, which is worth more than money can buy.

Many of the items are currently being stored in inadequate conditions in the museum’s basement, which is prone to leaks and flooding. However, the Heritage Center project will help ensure that these and other items in the collection are protected for future generations to enjoy for many years to come.

Earlier in the session, lawmakers turned down a bill that would have required the state to construct the Heritage Center where the Capital Hill Mall once stood. While this proposal would have helped revitalize a part of town that desperately needs it, we recognize that the location near the Capitol is much more convenient for the museum staff and safer for the artifacts in their care.

The offsite location would have forced the staff to remove delicate artifacts from a climate-controlled environment and truck them back and forth across town. At the site near the Capitol, the new and old wings of the museum will be connected by an underground concourse so the artifacts can be moved between the two locations without ever leaving the building.

Additionally, the state will save millions by building the Heritage Center on the land it already owns near the Capitol.

Sponsored by Sen. Terry Gauthier and carried in the House by Rep. Julie Dooling, both Helena Republicans, the bill approved by the Legislature is expected to generate about $34 million for the Heritage Center and additional funds for smaller museums throughout Montana by raising the state lodging sales and use tax. This will ease the financial burden on Montanans by spreading some of the costs to those visiting our state from other places.

MHS has committed to raising $10 million in private funds, and the rest of the project will be funded by previously approved bonding.

We are relieved to see the Montana Legislature finally supporting this critically important project, and we can’t wait to see it come together.

This is the opinion of the Independent Record editorial board.

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Helena Independent Record

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