ItŐs time for a Hall of Fame reality check

 

By Mike Kroll

 

10 August 2006

 

Back in March when the organizers of the National Railroad Hall of Fame made the big announcement that they would construct a $60 million facility on land donated by the City of Galesburg I was flabbergasted. My collection of doubts could be summarized into three key points.

First, along with most people following this project, I never expected it to be built on part of Kiwanis Park. Giving up park land for this project doesnŐt seem right when there is hardly a shortage of other available sites adjacent to the Interstate (thereŐs plenty of room in the vacant Logistics Park), but I held my tongue. Second, the ridiculously ambitious dollar figure seemed unattainable. I immediately suspected that counting on the railroads for big donations was more than wishful thinking (perhaps it was nŠive optimism), even before the Hall of Fame organizers figured this out for themselves. And third, the notion that this attraction would compare in success and popularity with the Baseball or Football Halls of Fame or the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield is totally delusional.

As we have learned more and more about the plans of this group, I have become increasingly convinced that the Railroad Hall of Fame committee has lost touch with reality. Now, before supporters of this project organize a lynch mob to hunt me down, let me say I have no problem with the far more modest concept of a National Railroad Hall of Fame as originally conceived by Bob Bondi. Nor would I have felt it appropriate to point out how misguided the current leadership of this project appears to be until they took it out of the realm of a privately funded project and began soliciting tax money to fund the bulk of it.

About a month ago I reported here in the Zephyr on an interview with Denny Morrison, the executive director of the National Railroad Hall of Fame, where he confirmed that the group had learned, to the committeeŐs surprise, that big money from the railroads was not forthcoming. He said the group was now counting on more local support including significant sums from state, federal and local government bodies. They hold out hope that the railroads will chip in later once the Hall of Fame could demonstrate ŇsufficientÓ levels of local support and that from the beginning the group was counting on big contributions from federal and state government.

What had changed is their interest in greater financial contributions from local government.

Now they are looking to the City of Galesburg and Knox County to step up with substantial dollars.

During the interview I pointed out that most local taxpayers would be bothered by this at a time when both the City and County were struggling to fund the normal scope of services. In fact, I suggested that most taxpayers wouldnŐt want to see tax dollars spent on this project, especially if it meant tax increases. He quickly stated that they had no intention of asking for additional sales or property tax money but rather ŇÉsome other tax or fee that would be paid largely by visitors to the communityÉÓ and pointed to the hotel-motel tax as such an example. Only days later Morrison denied any interest in hotel-motel tax dollars in a Register-Mail article. Regardless of the origin of the tax dollars, the point remains that Morrison and the Hall of Fame are looking to the taxpayers to foot much of the bill.

Apparently the Hall of Fame board has no problem taking tax dollars that canŐt be directly traced to new or higher taxes. With virtually no public discussion the City has already chipped in an additional $250,000 and expects to be asked for more, according to City Manager Gary Goddard. At MondayŐs City Council meeting the most controversial agenda item was a proposal to create a new one percent sales tax on prepared food and alcoholic beverages that was estimated to raise about $440,000 annually. During a break, Goddard told me that one of his motivations behind this new tax was the expectation of further funding requests from the Railroad Hall of Fame committee. You neednŐt be a genius to note that there are plenty of more worthy city needs requiring funding.

Outside of public view, Morrison has also asked perpetually cash-strapped Knox County for a large contribution, reportedly in the area of $150,000. Amazingly, some county board members even want to give it too them! Ignoring for a moment the disturbing secrecy of such discussions, I have to ask how absurd an idea is it for a county government that fought to regain financial sanity to willingly squander their small positive cash flow on what at best amounts to a widely speculative investment?

Knox County Treasurer Robin Davis is sympathetic to the Railroad Hall of Fame but acknowledges that Knox County has no extra funds at this time. ŇIf they really think the taxpayers would want to support a public expenditure for this, let them put it on the ballot. We can do a referendum for a museum tax and let the voters speak on this.Ó

The supposed justification for these public contributions to a private endeavor is economic development. Morrison and his committee have positioned the National Railroad Hall of Fame as a major economic development opportunity and this fits in nicely with those in Galesburg who nŠively believe that local tourism could be a substitute for real economic development. It seems highly unlikely the $60 million goal will ever be raised even if the Hall of Fame continues to feast at the expense of taxpayers. We must remember that even federal and state tax dollars are still raised from the sweat of taxpayers and can be more properly spent on schools, roads and public services. And, letŐs suppose only $20-30 million (or less) is raised, will they still build it? Will they still come? If not, what will become of the tax dollars already contributed? How much tax money is being spent on administrative costs of the fund raising effort without public oversight? At the very least there should be open accountability for how tax dollars are expended.

Assuming the Hall of Fame is built, can it live up to its expectations? The committee has announced a projected attendance of 200,000-300,000, presuming that our National Railroad Hall of Fame will be comparable to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. And they have also compared this effort to well-known sports equivalents. But are these fair comparisons or pipe dreams?

The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio has existed for 43 years and attracted 183,399 paid visitors in 2005 and averaged less than 190,000 visitors annually over the last decade, according to a spokeswoman there. And attendance is not spread evenly across the year either. Nearly 30,000 attend the Pro Football Hall of Fame on induction day alone for the Hall of Fame game.

The situation is somewhat different with the 67-year-old Baseball Hall of Fame. Cooperstown, N. Y. is a village much smaller and even more remote than Galesburg. It bills itself as ŇAmericaŐs hometown.Ó It 2,000+ residents live 35 miles from the closest Interstate highway and 90 miles from the nearest airport with scheduled passenger service. Brad Hall, public relations director for the Baseball Hall of Fame, says their average annual attendance over the last 15 years has been about 350,000 with 70 percent of that between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Interestingly, Hall said the key to success in a Hall of Fame is Ňthe ability to create an emotional connection with your visitor. No other sport has that level of connection with most Americans and we nurture it by displaying artifacts that create emotional connections in time with our visitors. You donŐt just pass through Cooperstown. Our visitors make a point to come here and we strive to give them reasons to return again and again.Ó The Baseball Hall of Fame does include multimedia exhibits but they are not Ňthe backbone of our attractionÓ or the key draw according to Hall.

Comparing the Railroad Hall of Fame to the Football or Baseball Halls of Fame seems ludicrous. Arguably, there are many more football fans than railroad buffs and baseball can claim the largest and most devoted fan base of any American sport. The Railroad Hall of Fame is quaint by comparison and isnŐt really being aimed at rail fans anyway. One sign of this is the nature of the inductees. Most railroad buffs are retired or active railroaders or have family ties to railroaders. They would be eager to see the common men who helped build American railroads honored but instead the Hall of Fame is stuck on 19th century robber barons, little-known inventors, and industrialists from then and now. A banker who loaned the money to start a railroad has more chance of being inducted than any mere railroad worker. When this becomes clear to potential visitors it will not have a positive impact on attendance.

But a key point made by both is that attendance doesnŐt happen overnight and doesnŐt maintain itself without constant attention to updating and enhancing the exhibits. Both of these sports halls of fame and most others depend greatly on memorabilia that our local organizers are dismissing as irrelevant. Perhaps they are right, after all stock certificates, contracts and promissory notes arenŐt exciting memorabilia. Even the Lincoln Museum blends the multimedia with a good collection of memorabilia and takes advantage of numerous other Lincoln sites in the immediate Springfield area and the general love of all things Lincoln nationally.

Comparing the Railroad Hall of Fame to any of these is highly presumptuous. It remains unclear to me what will make this a compelling draw for tourists.

While I am totally supportive of a private group pursuing the National Railroad Hall of Fame with private resources I remain highly skeptical of their grandiose expectations. It bothers me even more when they have conned this community into believing their project will be the solution to GalesburgŐs economic development quest. Tourism will not save Galesburg nor will it create significant numbers of good-paying full-time jobs.

This project is an unfortunate distraction when the attention of our community leaders should be on making Galesburg a more attractive place to live and do business. Spending tax dollars on a project like this when there are so many compelling yet unfunded projects is fiscally irresponsible of our elected officials.