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Museum organizers meet with officials to save project

Wednesday, February 17, 1999

By Adrian McCoy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Plans for the proposed National Museum of Broadcasting took a small step forward yesterday. The idea of a cooperative joint effort involving city, county and state funding needed to get the project off the ground was the topic of a meeting attended by representatives from the state, county, Wilkinsburg, Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, KDKA-AM (1020) and several community development organizations.

The museum is to be devoted to broadcasting history and would focus on this region's contributions to - and many firsts in - the field. It's been in the planning stages for more than a decade, but recently hit a stumbling block as the museum planning group, The Conrad Project, attempted to secure one of several historic local sites. The group had hoped that CBS (the former Westinghouse) would donate its Forest Hills recreation center property for use by the museum. That plan fell through when Westinghouse donated the property to the borough of Forest Hills instead.

The museum organizers reset their focus on the Wilkinsburg property where inventor/engineer and radio pioneer Frank Conrad lived. The site is historically significant because the garage was where Conrad conducted experiments that led to the first commercial broadcasts.

The Wilkinsburg Elks donated the garage to the museum effort but are trying to sell the property on which it stands, with a price tag of $489,000.

"We've come full circle. We find ourselves back here. And we find ourselves on the verge of losing it," Conrad Project chairman Rick Harris said of the Elks property.

The museum is eligible for up to $1 million in state funding if it can get matching local funds - either in cash or property donated.

Because the property borders on Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh, a 50-50 city/county funding plan was discussed.

Howard Slaughter Jr., director of preservation services for Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, said the project warrants an emergency PHLF loan to keep the garage from being lost. "Our primary issue here is to provide interim financing to save this historic site. We hope this will be the impetus for other funding."

Wilkinsburg Mayor Wilbert Young said securing the site for the museum is the first priority.

Other possibilities discussed were funding from the county's block grant program. Because of the historic significance of Conrad's garage, the museum would be eligible for this program.

Harris said he was encouraged by the response at yesterday's meeting. "People realize that action has to be taken right away, that this is an important landmark and should be preserved."

The museum has also applied to have the property listed as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 11 most endangered historic places - a designation that could create more national awareness about the museum's plight. There, too, time is running out. The list won't come out until June.

Representatives from prospective funding sources will meet next week to start putting together a package.

PHLF's Slaughter, for one, is optimistic and thinks it can become a reality: "They have all of the pieces to put the puzzle together. All the pieces are on the table."

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