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Editorial: Saving Rowan treasures

The Rowan Museum got wounded in the crossfire between county commissioners and the SmokeOut bikers’ rally a couple of years ago. Last week, commissioners delivered the necessary treatment ó they gave the museum the county building it uses.
That’s good news for Rowan Museum and its preservation efforts.
Residents will remember the SmokeOut controversy. After looking the other way for several years, commissioners decided in 2007 that the county fairgrounds was not the proper venue for the beer-fueled fest, a weekend event that showcased custom-built choppers and attractions like Hot Lady Car Washes. A rift with the Rowan County Fair Association factored into the debate.
One of the upshots, besides no more SmokeOuts, was a policy prohibiting alcohol on county-owned property. That applies to chardonnay-sipping as well as beer-swilling. And it includes the historic building Rowan Museum occupies on North Main Street and a stately second-floor area often rented out for class reunions, wedding receptions and the like ó the Messinger Room, named for the late Richard Messinger, a county commissioner and community leader. Bookings for the Messinger Room dropped fairly precipitously after the alcohol ban went into effect. Director Kay Hirst estimates the museum missed out on about $80,000 in rentals in two and a half years. That hurt.
When talk of turning the building over to the museum first arose, it was an all-or-nothing deal, and museum officials declined. Maintaining the historic stucco structure was more than the small nonprofit could take on. Last week’s agreement is a good compromise. The county maintains the somewhat fragile exterior; the museum is responsible for the interior.
The structure itself is one of Rowan’s treasures. Built in 1855-57 in the style of a Greek temple, the building served as the county’s courthouse until 1914 ó “graciously spared,” according to historians, by Union Gen. George Stoneman when his troops torched downtown Salisbury in 1865. Inside, the museum displays artifacts from Rowan’s 256-year history and stores many more. Yet the museum has the same financial challenges all nonprofits face. Visits have increased during the recession as people stick close to home and take advantage of free attractions, and donations have fallen.
Benefits of the deal commissioners OK’d will go beyond North Main Street. The museum also owns the 1766 Old Stone House in Granite Quarry ó where it will hold a Germanfest on Saturday ó and the 19th century Utzman-Chambers House on Jackson Street. The museum sponsors summer camps and other events that contribute to local life. The commissioners’ action will help boost all that without costing the county itself a dime more. That’s a smart, healing move.

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