Jeff Jardine

Lucas museum in Modesto: Dream big or dream on?

George Lucas waves as grand marshal at the Modesto American Graffiti Festival parade June 7, 2013.
George Lucas waves as grand marshal at the Modesto American Graffiti Festival parade June 7, 2013. Modesto Bee file

You know, George Lucas could help solve a number of problems burdening his old hometown if he’d just build his state-of-the-art museum here. He could change the city’s image to the rest of the nation. He could change the way many Modestans feel about their city.

According to news reports, the “Star Wars” franchise conjurer and Downey High grad said he won’t build the museum to house his personal art collection in Chicago after all. He ran into interference as well when he wanted to put it at the Presidio in San Francisco in 2014. In both cities, the forces were against him. (Hey, Lucas started that – not me.)

In essence, the National Park Service nixed his plan for the Presidio site, perhaps because it was too busy neglecting to protect intellectual property rights at Yosemite National Park. And in Chicago – “City of Big Shoulders” and the place poet Carl Sandberg dubbed “Hog butcher for the world” – apparently needs to add “The City of Big Lawyers” to its list of monikers. Lawsuits compelled Lucas to scuttle plans to build his museum along the city’s Lake Michigan shoreline.

Meanwhile, in the decades while Modesto’s favorite son has been out making prodigious hit movies and prodigious-er piles of money, Modesto has sputtered along, clinging to his name and the custom car culture and small-town life that inspired his first hit film, “American Graffiti.”

I think we know intuitively that Lucas is not going to remotely consider building his museum here. His collection includes the works of Norman Rockwell (but then, so does the local history museum in Ripon). He also owns artwork of Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth, along with more modern exhibit items from his own production company and the film industry, according to The Bee and other sources.

But that shouldn’t discourage folks from wishing he would bring it home. San Francisco didn’t need it. Chicago didn’t need it. Modesto really needs it. Just as he had the right to bring his stories to life on the big screen, locals like Chris Murphy, who keep the Lucas legend alive in Modesto, certainly can dream big as well.

So how could Lucas’ museum help Modesto? Albatross removal, to start.

Some background: When the Vintage Faire Mall opened in 1978 – a year after Lucas unveiled his first “Star Wars” film – the Sears and JC Penney stores moved north and sent downtown Modesto into a virtual ghost town of boarded-up storefronts and vacant hotels. So in the late 1980s, the city embarked on a downtown redevelopment project. It opened the Modesto Centre Plaza convention center to great fanfare, with Bob Hope performing at the gala grand opening in 1988. In doing so, the building blocked off 10th Street – one of the main routes of the cruising era that is the focus of Modesto’s wildly popular celebration each June.

Later that same year, the city partnered with developer Allen Grant to build the Red Lion Hotel at Ninth and K streets, next door and linking to the Centre Plaza. Grant built the hotel. The city owned the land beneath it. From the get-go, the Centre Plaza failed to bring in the revenues city officials projected, and within five years the city considered turning management of the convention center over to the hotel. But the Red Lion was in financial straits itself.

In March 1996, Grant lost the hotel to bankruptcy and the city lost the land for which it had paid $1.6 million and counted on to generate over $4 million in revenues over the last 25 years of the lease. Modesto continues to run the Centre Plaza and at a deficit: $608,000 in fiscal 2014-15 and $514,000 this year, according to Mayor Ted Brandvold and his budget review committee. The state eliminated redevelopment agencies in 2011, replacing them with successor agencies. Modesto’s successor agency owes $12.2 million through 2023 on the Centre Plaza.

Once again, city officials are looking at ceding management of the convention center to the hotel, now the DoubleTree. The same committee also recommends turning the McHenry Mansion and the McHenry Museum over to a nonprofit to fund their joint operation and maintenance, which is expected to be $187,000 in the red for the upcoming fiscal year.

All that stated, and it would take some good lawyering, offer Lucas as much of the Centre Plaza as he needs for his museum. Let him tear it down completely and redevelop it on his dime if that’s what it takes. In return, if he pays the annual debt service or even half of it, the city would save money. (The police could use the savings to add additional storm troopers.) Two conditions: First, that Lucas include or create a separate “Graffiti” exhibit and reconnect 10th Street. That, in turn, would require building a skyway – OK, a Skywalker – to connect the museum and the hotel no different than the one now linking the DoubleTree and parking garage across Ninth Street.

Secondly, that he contribute, oh, about $187,000 a year – tax deductible, of course – to the nonprofits chosen to run the McHenry Mansion and Museum.

Lucas, with family still living here, alone could turn Modesto into a true tourist destination that generates true tourist dollars. He could transform the city’s hard-earned reputation as being a stolen-car capital and reshape the rest of the country’s perception of Modesto as “a dusty little farm town” like the one where he grew up.

It’s OK to dream. It’s good to reach for stars and even the “Star Wars” when it comes to improving Modesto’s quality of life. The city should at least reach out to him. Still, don’t race for pink slips on this one. As he said himself through character Han Solo in the first Star Wars film: “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, farm boy.”