Two years after a $6 million jobs grant from the state jump-started construction on its new building, the Museum of Broadcast Communications has a lot to show for it: 18,000 square feet of television and radio exhibits, recordings and memorabilia that will open to the public Wednesday.
What is less apparent is how many jobs the project can take credit for.
The museum's founder, veteran broadcaster Bruce DuMont, has been planning the $27 million four-story building on State Street near the House of Blues since moving out of its rented space in the Chicago Cultural Center in 2003. He secured the key $6 million grant after telling the state he intended to create 200 yearlong construction jobs and 19 museum staff positions (15 full-time jobs and four part-time ones), according to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
DuMont now expects the museum to open to the public with 11 part-time workers and estimates that 180 to 200 workers — who worked anywhere from 10 months to a few days — were involved in construction of the new building.
DuMont said he may hire more museum employees "eventually — and it could happen fast."
Asked by email to explain the discrepancy between the number of museum staff jobs promised by his project and the number actually created, DuMont wrote: "If the MBC can manage our operations with fewer people and do so efficiently, we will do so, just like the Chicago Tribune has done."
DuMont said in an interview that the museum's opening also will create jobs for waiters, hotel employees and other service workers who will attend to museum visitors. In DuMont's estimation, even inspiring young people to pursue careers in television falls under the definition of creating jobs.
"I think inspiration is a form of job creation," DuMont said, "because it changes one life."
Marcelyn Love, the spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, said that "construction and construction-related jobs" are the main type of employment that the state hoped to create with the Illinois Jobs Now package that included the museum's $6 million.
The $31 billion package, signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2009, is expected to "create and support" 439,000 jobs over six years, Love said. Questioned about the $6 million spent on the museum, Love said the money was "to assist the Museum of Broadcast Communications with the completion of its new facility and support Illinois' thriving tourism industry" and called the expected jobs creation "an added benefit."
Asked whether Quinn's office sees the museum's Jobs Now grant as a success, Quinn's spokeswoman Annie Thompson said in a statement: "We are pleased to be part of this project, which put people to work. The museum will help support our thriving tourism industry, which is an enormous economic engine, for years to come."
Both DCEO and the governor's office said state officials monitor projects that receive grants to ensure the money is being used as intended. Love said she knew of no "current monitoring issues" with the museum. Pepper Construction Co., which built the museum, referred questions to DuMont and did not respond to attempts to verify his figures.
David Merriman, associate director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, suggested that without DuMont's project, some other developer would likely have taken over the museum site at 360 N. State St., which was formerly occupied by a parking garage.
"So it's unlikely really that the funding created really any net jobs," Merriman said. "It's allowed us to have a cultural attraction that might make the city more appealing in the long run. But to think that spending the money created jobs — it's kind of difficult to defend that idea."
Some state lawmakers opposed the grant at the time it was awarded.
"It may be a pretty good project, I don't know," said one of them, Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo. But "I don't think anyone can seriously argue that this was done for job creation."
The museum, like many American museums, also received other public funding in addition to the $6 million in job creation grants: two grants from the state totaling $3.9 million, as well as a series of smaller grants over the past decade.
DuMont paired that $10 million with about $11 million he said he received in private and corporate donations.
That leaves the museum owing about $6 million on its mortgage — a debt DuMont says is due by September. He said he is planning to cut the debt in half by selling the museum's first floor to an interested commercial developer later this month. But if he can't raise the remaining funds, he said, he'll also need to sell the fourth floor, an event space he hoped would bring in key rental dollars from weddings and other events.
The museum moved into its first public space in the River City residential complex, 800 S. Wells St., in 1987. It transferred to the Chicago Cultural Center in 1992 and by 2002 was drawing 200,000 visitors annually, the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau told the Tribune that year.
DuMont hosts the nationally syndicated radio show "Beyond the Beltway," focusing on politics and current affairs. He said he had a 2005 conversation with then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and was promised $8 million for the building.
Construction started in 2005 but ground to a halt in 2006 when Blagojevich never delivered the money, DuMont said, and it wasn't until Quinn awarded his $6 million jobs grant in 2010 that construction restarted.
Over the past year, the new building has hosted many private events and a few public ones — including a February memorial for Don Cornelius — and Chicagoans have been able to visit the National Radio Hall of Fame on the museum's second floor, DuMont said. But Wednesday will be the first time the public can view the finished exhibits (radio on the second floor, television on the third).
Visitors can star in their own newscast or soap opera episode and then take home a digital clip or DVD, or they can select clips from the museum's collection of 85,000 hours of archived videos to view in the museum's education center. Admission is $12.
Only about 8,500 hours are online, DuMont said, because efforts to find funding for digitization have been "somewhat diluted" over the past five years by the focus on getting the new building open.
Artifacts on display include an early WGN color television camera, a 6-foot-tall, 1,000-pound metal contraption; the puppet Charlie McCarthy, which was ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's wisecracking sidekick; and the set and costumes from the Bozo show, the popular Chicago-based children's show that went off the air in 2001.
The museum plans to stay open late Wednesday nights for public screenings, lectures and other events.
Chicago was a key incubator for radio and early televisions shows, said WBBM-Ch. 2 anchor Bill Kurtis, who owns a production company in addition to his work for the CBS station. "It's a rich, rich history and certainly deserving of recognition."
Educating Chicagoans and visitors about that history is a longtime goal for DuMont. Another developer, he acknowledged, could potentially have built a tower on the State Street property with many more workers.
"Now that would be greater economic impact than what we have done," he said. "I don't deny that. Maybe that wouldn't require any government support. I wouldn't deny that. But cities must be more than skyscrapers."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times