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National Underground Railroad Freedom Center plans to merge

File photo of the Freedom Center in Cincinnati
File photo of the Freedom Center in Cincinnati

By Joe Wessels

CINCINNATI (Reuters) - The struggling Freedom Center, which tells the history of black slaves escaping from the U.S. south, announced plans on Wednesday to merge with another Cincinnati museum to ensure its survival.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center said it would merge administrative, programming and some personnel costs, as well as expand community partnerships and fundraising opportunities with the Cincinnati Museum Center.

The Freedom Center, which opened its doors in 2004, was facing possible closure at the end of this year if it did not fill a $1.5 million funding gap,

Details are still being hammered out, but the initial overview of the merger's financial aspects look positive, according to Elizabeth Pierce, the Museum Center's vice president of marketing and communications.

"We are entering a phase of due diligence," she said. "We have some initial analysis that allows us to think it was the right thing to do. We are now going to validate those assumptions."

That process will take about four to six months to complete, she said.

Now that word of the likely merger is out, the two organizations can begin the process of working with national, regional and local partners to help raise money and support, Pierce said.

The Freedom Center has had trouble in recent years garnering support from some donors because of the perception it might not remain open.

"We are not doing to do this alone," said Douglass McDonald, president and CEO of the Museum Center. "Part of this process is going to be going to people in the community and establishing partnerships."

Almost immediately after opening in 2004, the Freedom Center began to struggle financially, eventually laying off several staff members and taking other measures to cut costs.

The museum is directly across the Ohio River from the slave state of Kentucky, and Cincinnati was a major stop on the "underground railroad" that helped slaves go north to Canada.

The museum also has an exhibit examining contemporary slavery, which includes such practices as forced child labor and sex trafficking.

Since its inception, museum leaders, including former Procter & Gamble Co. CEO John Pepper, who is co-chair of its board of directors, hoped to make the facility a national museum.

If that had happened, the federal government would take over the building and its accompanying $3 million operating expense -- although if the planned merger goes ahead, it would not now be necessary.

"This is an unprecedented opportunity for our two iconic institutions and for the men, women and children we serve," Pepper said.

"Having examined the case for joining together, I am convinced that this combination of talent and efficiencies will dramatically expand the impact of the Freedom Center's mission, locally and nationwide. Our two institutions will do things together neither of us could do alone."

Cincinnati City Councilman Christopher Smitherman, who is also president of the Cincinnati Chapter of the NAACP, had criticized the Freedom Center for "not living up to its potential."

He said the museum backed off its original intention to tell the story of African-American slavery for a "smorgasbord of conversation around freedom," welcomed the news. "I view the merger as a very positive step for the region," he said.

(Editing By Tim Gaynor)

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