If Montana lawmakers truly care about our state’s heritage and the financial investments that have been made to preserve it, they need to make the proposed renovation and expansion of Montana Historical Society a priority.

Plans for the project call for the renovation of the historical society’s 67,000-square-foot museum and the construction of a new 45,000-square-foot wing, which collectively would be called the Montana Heritage Center. The Helena project would be funded through a combination of bonding and private donations.

We know it’s hard to commit state funding to the museum during a time when legislators are considering slashing millions from services such as senior and long-term care. But because the cost of the project grows every year it is delayed, lawmakers would effectively save money that could be used on other essential services by funding the project now rather than later.

The Montana Historical Society has been asking the Legislature to help pay for the project since the 2005 legislative session. The total cost has grown from $37.5 million to $44 million since then, and it will only continue to rise.

“The longer we kick it down the road, the less reward we’re going to reap from it and the more expensive it gets,” said Bruce Whittenberg, executive director of MHS, adding that the price of the project grows by 3.5 percent every year.

Delaying the project also threatens the immense value of the artwork and artifacts themselves, many of which are currently stored in inadequate conditions in the basement of the 65-year-old museum. If the project is completed, the art and artifacts would be moved into a new facility built to keep them safe.

“We are one bad day away from a real catastrophe in that building,” Whittenberg said, adding that the basement is prone to leaks and flooding. “ … Five feet of water in the basement would be a really bad day, and that could happen.”

Whittenberg also noted that the temperature in the museum’s art vault reached 80 degrees Fahrenheit over the summer after the climate control system failed, “which for a Charles M. Russell wax sculpture is not a good idea.”

In addition, the extra storage space would help ensure that MHS does not have to turn down any items of historical value because of a lack of space. Montanans will continue to create history until the end of time, and officials have said they expect the museum’s collection to grow at a rate of roughly 500 to 1,000 new artifacts per year.

“We ran out of space long ago,” Whittenberg said.

While MHS undoubtedly contributes a lot to Helena’s local economy and quality of life, we want to emphasize how important it is to all Montanans. This project would protect not only art and artifacts, but also the extensive collection of vital government records included in the official state archives currently stored in the museum’s basement.

“The proposal to renovate and expand is beyond timely,” Whittenberg said. “It’s critical.”

Montana lawmakers have recently come up with several different ideas for how to fund this project -- some better than others -- and we encourage them to continue to put their heads together to figure out how to make it work sooner rather than later.

Our identity as a state depends on it.