April 22, 2013

Augusta interests make case for Gannett House museum

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — A city official and the local chamber of commerce director told lawmakers Monday that selling the vacant Gannett House on State Street so it can become a nonprofit museum would be a welcome addition to the capital.

click image to enlarge

The family of the late Maine publisher Guy Gannett wants to turn his former house in Augusta, next door to the Blaine House, into a First Amendment museum.

Staff file photo by Andy Molloy

City Manager William Bridgeo said the Friends of the Blaine House board has "grappled for several years" with what should happen with the house next door, the Mediterranean revival home built in 1911.

He said the idea of turning it into a museum about the First Amendment would benefit visitors and schoolchildren alike.

"It will be a tremendous value to students of all ages for generations to come," Bridgeo told members of the State and Local Government Committee.

Peter Thompson, president of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the project would benefit the city and the state.

"This would be a wonderful addition to the community that we would support," he said.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, sponsored L.D. 1378, which requires the state to sell the house to the Gannett House Project for fair market value for use as a museum. For more than two years, Genie Gannett and other members of her family have wanted to open a museum at the site of the former family home to pay tribute to the First Amendment.

The house has been owned by the state since 1973, but was vacated in 2010 when the State Planning Office moved down the street.

Genie Gannett and her sister, Terry Gannett Hopkins, submitted statements to the committee Monday in hopes of getting the bill to move forward.

"Over the years, I have seen a rapid decline in the understanding of the importance of free speech in a democracy," Gannett Hopkins wrote in her statement. She wrote that she hopes the museum would spark an "increase in citizen participation in government."

No one testified in opposition to the bill, but Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, asked Katz why the house should not go out to competitive bid.

Katz said that the house is different from other state property because it is so close to the Blaine House, which is the governor's residence, and that the city would benefit far more from a museum than from office space.

"If we talk about a good use of the building, it's hard to think of anything more important than the First Amendment," he said.

Former Maine State Museum Director J.R. Phillips testified in support, as did Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta. Phillips said the proximity to the Blaine House, State House and Maine State Museum makes it a good place for a new tourist draw.

"A well-funded, nonprofit museum would be an ideal neighbor," Phillips said.

Susan Cover — 621-5643

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