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What will happen to ITOW? Museum's future uncertain as big mortgage payment due date looms

Leaders of the ITOW Veterans Museum have 14 months to make a $625,000 mortgage payment or face potentially devastating consequences.

The museum has been struggling to make interest-only payments on the building, and if the large remaining balance is not paid on time, ITOW could potentially become homeless - and bankrupt.

But Marcia Davis, board president of the Friends of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County, said that would be the worst-case scenario, and ITOW leaders are hoping for a much different outcome.

Recent fundraising ideas and initiatives by some ambitious and passionate new board members, Davis believes, could be enough to keep the museum afloat - but community and outside support will also be a major deciding factor in ITOW's fate.

That's why Davis and other board members have been meeting with city leaders lately to plead their case for ITOW. They say the museum is a unique cultural and community hub with national appeal, a one-of-a-kind place where veteran's stories are shared by veterans themselves, and where people in Perham go to gather and attend special shows and events.

Their vision for ITOW, in the not-too-distant future, is one of broadened appeal.

At a recent meeting with city councilors and department heads, Davis said the ITOW board is seriously considering expanding the museum into a veterans-focused educational, arts and community center, complete with a name change to something like the "ITOW Veterans Center." This would make it even more of a community resource than it already is, she said, and would also open the door to "a whole new world of grants."

The board would also like to enhance ITOW's website, to make it useful for teachers, students, and others around the world who are interested in the first-hand history lessons that ITOW has to tell. This, too, could help ITOW qualify for more grants, by transforming it into an international resource, said Davis.

In another effort to secure ITOW's future, board members want to hire a director with grant writing and fundraising experience - someone who can hopefully find a way to support his or her own position, as well as continued funding for the museum itself.

ITOW board members have asked the city for its public support of the museum, though not in terms of a specific dollar amount. They would like the city to help move ITOW forward, and that could mean something as simple as a few more fresh ideas and/or some guidance about where to go from here.

While city leaders appear to be sympathetic to the situation, they have so far been hesitant to show any definite support.

At a meeting Monday, city councilors commended ITOW board members and volunteers for all they've done and continue to do, but unanimously voted to table a decision on whether to get the city directly involved, wanting more information first.

Mayor Tim Meehl called ITOW's financial situation "very, very challenging." While expressing his hopefulness for the museum's future, he also called it "a fast-sinking ship" and wanted to wait another month or two "to see how things are going" with community pledges and other fundraising efforts before taking any action.

"I think the city can help somehow," Meehl said, "but I don't know if it'll be the leader."

The museum board isn't counting solely on Perham for help. They've been reaching outside of the city's borders, seeking donations from veterans organizations around the Midwest, and meeting with state politicians to try and get an appropriation for ITOW. Last week, they sent out more than 1,200 letters to potential donors. And they continue to apply for grants as those become available.

In addition, new committees are being formed to tackle different aspects of the challenge ahead. One committee will focus on fundraising, another on social media and developing the ITOW website, another on strategic planning, etc.

"We have a lot of plans in place, a lot of activity happening," said Davis. "We're a board with big ideas... we're working very hard."

In the meantime, ITOW is "existing on bare minimum; to keep the lights on and to keep offering events," Davis added. "Nobody works for any money... The director is doing janitorial work."

And while the board believes that no matter what, the vision of ITOW will survive long into the future, Davis said they're "very worried about the future of the (ITOW) building."

If the building cannot be paid off or refinanced, one possible version of ITOW's future is as an online-only resource, with no physical building to house the museum - or the community groups that gather there or the events often held there.

But there are many possible futures for ITOW, and at this point nothing seems to be off the table. What ultimately happens will depend on how fundraising and other efforts go over the next 14 months.

"We have a couple of funds sitting there with cash available to help pay that (mortgage) down, but it's not pretty," Davis said. "It's kind of bleak... But we're going to do our best to raise funds, to come up with alternative ideas... We can't do it alone. We're asking the community to join with us. ITOW is a wonderful thing here that no one else in the country has."

The ITOW Veterans Museum is located at 805 West Main Street in Perham and can be reached at 346-7678.