Stephen G. Donches has resigned as the embattled head of the long promised but never opened National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem.
Donches has offered his resignation as president, CEO and museum director, according to a Friday news release from the museum.
In the release, Donches said he is stepping down so that "the concentration on finding a way to complete the museum can be the first order of business in the months ahead."
But Donches is not completely disassociating himself from the museum. He will remain an employee, at an annual salary of $90,000, half the $180,000 he was being paid as president and CEO.
The news release makes no mention of the Northampton County grand jury investigation of the museum, which in late January recommended Donches should resign or be fired. After 17 years and up to $19 million in contributions, the museum has not been built. Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli said the grand jury determined the number one expenditure was to pay Donches, who got $2.4 million between 2002 and 2012 in salary, benefits, pension and healthcare.
Friday, L. Charles Marcon, the museum's chairman, said its board of director has asked Donches "to stay on as an employee because his experience and expertise are invaluable to the museum at this time." Marcon said Donches holds no title in his new position, but will perform duties at the direction of the board and "be the operations person to lead the museum to its next stage of development."
"He's got all these years of knowledge and no one else has it and if we want to go forward and open a museum and have a successful project, someone needs to be the leader and he's the obvious guy," Marcon told 69 News.
Marcon said the museum's board reluctantly has accepted Donches' resignation. The board also named Marcon interim president and CEO.
Marcon praised Donches' "hard work" in the development of plans for the museum, which is planned in a former Bethlehem Steel building.
"This has not been an easy project on many fronts," said Marcon. "But the opportunity for our community to celebrate the men and women who built America and to be the base of the industrialization of our region, the commonwealth and the nation should not be lightly discarded.
"It deserves an intensive review to determine the best way forward and we will continue our aggressive actions in this matter."
"I'm going to present some alternatives and I think that we'll scale down quite a bit and look for a partner to help us pay for it. We don't have enough money," he told 69 News.
Marcon announced several "actions" will be taken by April 30. One is to evaluate alternative plans, including developing "another form of museum if the current plan is determined to be unachievable."
"We're not married to the national concept. We're more interested in doing what we can, being more flexible and opening the museum that we think we can support," said Marcon.
He said it may end up being a regional or Bethlehem Steel museum, rather than a national museum.
"We're more focused on opening and doing something," he said.
Another goal is to update the business plan "to assess the sustainability of the museum." By the end of March, Marcon reported, the museum's operating budget and overall expenses will be cut by at least 25 to 30 percent. He said that "streamlining" includes the 50 percent reduction in Donches' pay.
He said the board also is trying to renegotiate leases and other contracts to reduce operating expenses. Marcon also said the museum's board and administration may be reorganized to better fulfill its mission.
The grand jury determined that a number of museum board members had conflicts of interest.
The museum's "preview and staging facility" is open for preview tours, noon to 4 p.m. every Sunday in March. The public can see industrial artifacts to be exhibited in the museum, which are stored in a warehouse in Lehigh Valley Industrial Park, between Lehigh Valley International Airport and Route 22 in Hanover Township, Lehigh County.
"We were very encouraged by the number of people who attended the first open house last Sunday and we anticipate attendance to grow each Sunday," said Marcon.