The Amherst Town Board Wednesday gave itself 60 days to decide whether the Niagara Frontier Aviation and Space Museum -- a $1.9 million project due to be finished this spring -- will be a museum, or something else.
With the steel skeleton of the 30,000-square-foot building in place off Millersport Highway and Smith Road, town officials are recoiling at the prospect of local taxpayers paying three-quarters of a million dollars a year for a museum with a regional scope.
If they don't get significant outside funding, officials said they may scrap the project, adapt the building to other uses and return several-hundred thousand dollars in private donations.
At an afternoon meeting of the Town Board, Supervisor Daniel J. Ward said he asked Mayor Griffin about possibly making the Niagara Frontier aviation museum part of the Naval and Servicemen's Park or the Buffalo Museum of Science.
Griffin "didn't say no," and is expected to get back to Ward in a few days, Ward told the board.
Amherst Councilman Harold J. Collier quipped that the aviation museum would be "a great addition to Pilot Field."
One of several alternatives officials are weighing involves locating a scaled-down aviation museum in a new building planned at the Amherst Museum at Tonawanda Creek and New roads. The museum already has a large display of local aviation artifacts and memorabilia.
Collier said the building at Millersport and Smith could be put to "other uses that wouldn't be a burden to the town's taxpayers," but neither he nor other officials offered candidates.
The aviation museum project dates back several years. It has involved the Aero Club of Buffalo, federal and state legislators, many volunteers and aviation buffs, worldwide searches for aircraft and parts, and more than a half-million dollars in private donations.
But, as Councilman E. Thomas Jones explained Wednesday, the thinking of town officials is that Amherst may have bitten off more than its taxpayers should chew.
"At budget time, the Town Board was led to believe that the museum would be self-sustaining, or at least that a majority of the costs would be reimbursed with private donations, gifts and grants," Jones said.
However, officials learned at recent meetings that it would cost town taxpayers about $750,000 a year beginning in 1991 to operate, maintain and pay the debt service at the new museum, Jones said.
Annual revenue from visitor admissions and other fund-raising was projected at about $200,000.
"The board decided to re-evaluate (the) project with two goals in mind -- protect the town taxpayer and, if possible, continue the noble cause of establishing an aviation museum on the Niagara Frontier," Jones said.
Jones said the "stated primary purpose" of the aviation-museum project was to "provide this function for five counties and the Province of Ontario.
"Given that (regional scope of the museum), there's no question it shouldn't be underwritten by the town," Jones told the board.
"I think it should be funded by a higher level of government," Ward said.
The aviation-museum project has attracted about $510,000 in pledges, about $311,000 of which have been collected, officials said.