It's no secret that the Kern County Museum has been experiencing a revival of sorts, despite the challenges the nonprofit has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The museum's new Trolly Car Station, its Raymond A. Watson Transportation Exhibit and its growing Neon Plaza are just three examples of the extraordinary growth that has been taking place at this 16-acre repository of local history.
Now the 80-year-old museum is about to receive another shot in the arm, a $100,000 donation designed to take the neon plaza to the next level, while bringing a name change to the popular collection.
"The naming of this portion of the Kern County Museum, the Mission Bank Neon Plaza, was requested by the board of directors of the Kern County Museum Foundation, and the donors, Bryan Batey and the Batey family, through the Batey Charitable Fund," the county's Chief General Services Officer Geoffrey Hill submitted in a proposed resolution that will go before the Kern County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
Longtime local homebuilder Bryan Batey, a co-owner of Mission Bank who serves on Mission Bank's board of directors, said his family and especially his mother, Gayle Batey, have been longtime supporters of the museum.
"I served as a director of the Kern County Museum Foundation for a period of time and came to appreciate the amazing things that the staff and volunteers at the museum are doing," Batey said in a statement.
"Museum Director Mike McCoy has been instrumental in completing the Ray Watson Transportation Exhibit and I recognized there was a financial need to complete the Neon Plaza, which is the entry to the automotive area and the Trolly Car Exhibit."
The vote by supervisors Tuesday is not expected to be controversial.
"I think it is appropriate to offer naming rights for major donations to specific exhibits," said Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard. "There is a precedent for it at the museum."
Indeed the AERA Energy Gallery, the Tejon Ranch Gallery, and the Watson exhibit are just a few of the projects at the museum that have been named for individual and corporate sponsors.
Carola Rupert Enriquez, who served as museum director in the 1980s, said the museum was originally intended to cover the earliest days to the horse-and-buggy era, hence the name Pioneer Village for the outdoor grounds.
"When I arrived as director in 1981, we already had thousands of collection items from later periods, so we began to explore how best to expand the museum's focus and cover the true expanse of Kern County history," she said. "The dustbowl migration, the 1950s nightclub scene, and the colorful neon signs being displaced as businesses closed were all part of our revised collections policy."
The concrete for the Neon Plaza was poured 30 years ago to complement the newly collected gas station building, Rupert Enriquez recalled, and it seemed a natural fit to start erecting the neon sign collection around the gas station on poles so that the viewer’s vantage point was similar to the original streetscape.
"The resulting and ever-expanding Neon Plaza is a completely unique space to visit, and is ideal for rental space and museum events," she said. "I am thrilled it remains relevant to the community and its visitors.
"I am very pleased that the Batey family and Mission Bank see the exceptional qualities of the space and will make a significant contribution to its upkeep and expansion."
AJ Antongiovani, CEO of Mission Bank, said supporting the Neon Plaza seemed like a natural fit for the only independent, locally owned community bank headquartered in Bakersfield.
The vintage neons are "physical and visible" reminders of successful local businesses from the past, he said, businesses that were not so different from those the bank supports today.
"It just makes sense that we support this exhibit," he said.
McCoy, who has been at the center of this revival, said it would be a mistake to think of the neon signs as just hardware and neon tubing. They tell stories, he said, of people and places.
"Each one of these signs tells the story of Kern County and some of our incredible pioneers," he said. "Floyd Burcham, Jim Baker, Frank Amestoy and the Andre Brothers. Businesses like Dewar's, Stinson Stationers and Saba's helped grow our community."
The Batey gift, he said, allowed the museum to "fast-track the project and really move toward the end zone."
For Batey, the gift is about a family that thrived because of an extraordinary community.
The family's gift to the community, Batey said, was ultimately made possible by the community itself.
"Our family's gift to the museum is the result of the good fortune that our family has enjoyed in Kern County since Ben and Gayle Batey first arrived in Shafter in 1960," he said. "We have been truly blessed.
"This gift would not have been possible without the efforts of the many employees, subcontractors, tradesmen, homebuyers, Realtors and friends who have supported our family business."