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Harrisburg, Dauphin Co. Commissioners battle over Civil War Museum

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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- One hundred and fifty years since the end of the Civil War, a new battle is taking shape in Harrisburg over its national museum.

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse wants to see the museum, currently located in the city's Reservoir Park neighborhood, to be dissolved and repurposed. He says some of the approximately 25,000 artifacts inside the museum were bought by former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed with illegally obtained taxpayer money.

On Tuesday, Reed was indicted on 499 criminal counts over 17 charges including corruption, bribery, and theft over a 20-year period while he was Mayor. A grand jury presentment claims Reed used public money to buy 10,000 historical artifacts. In 2001, Reed opened the National Civil War Museum, which was to be part of a series of museums he claims to have envisioned for the city but never came to fruition.

"Those artifacts were purchased with city tax dollars and in a way which was illegal," Papenfuse said of the museum. "It's time to end that failed experiment."

Papenfuse says over $10 million of city money is currently "locked up in the Civil War Museum." He wants that money to be better used for the city.

"You have millions upon millions of dollars of city assets tied up in that museum which is not being used to help the debt burden every city resident is facing," Papenfuse added. "We have the responsibility as part of our recovery to be good stewards of our resources and that is not the best use."

The building could be repurposed into a new city hall or conference center while continuing to maintain a partial Civil War Museum inside, he says.

The City of Harrisburg owns the building and its artifacts, Papenfuse said, but claims they cannot simply dissolve the museum due to contracts signed between the museum and Reed. Papenfuse has asked for the board to dissolve themselves. If they don't, he is threatening to take the museum's board to court.

Museum officials responded to FOX43 late Wednesday afternoon with a written statement, claiming to have hosted 750,000 visitors since opening in 2001, and is the second-largest center for tourism in Harrisburg, according to national tourism website Trip Advisor.

"As part of our work, the museum educated 7,000 school age children who haled from local districts, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and national locations," the statement read. "While the mission of the museum is educational in nature, it also provided millions of dollars of economic benefit to the area…. The museum has not received any funding from the City of Harrisburg since 2009 and continues to bear expenses now totaling well over $185,000 related to capital maintenance and repair."

Papenfuse claims the contracts bound the city to continue to give its tourism money to the museum. Dauphin County Commissioners chairman Jeff Haste approves of the museum, despite its origins, and does not want to see it dissolved.

"It's really disheartening to take an asset, no matter how it came about, and destroy it," Haste said.

Haste says he understands the Civil War Museum has financially struggled throughout the years, but takes exception to Mayor Papenfuse's remarks singling out the museum from Stephen Reed's other proposed plans -- such as a National Sports Hall of Fame Museum on City Island -- which never came to fruition.

"Did he fire everyone in the city that was affiliated with Reed? Did he quit doing business with the businesses affiliated with Reed? Where do you draw the line? I think he’s overreaching a bit," Haste replied.

Haste accused Papenfuse of not being able to see how the museum is a positive reminder of how local African-Americans were involved in the Civil War.

"For someone who has a fair share of his city's population as African-American," Haste said, "Instead of taking the Civil War Museum which highlights the pride our folks should have (for African-American soldiers), he wants to remove that opportunity from them."

The question, though, remains: Could money tied up in the museum be better used?

"It should've already been addressed," Papenfuse said. "It's only a matter of time until it will be."