Wisdom & perspective: Maturation of the National Railroad Hall of Fame concept


by Mike Kroll


Not unlike many life challenges embarrassing stumbles, false starts and minor failures have plagued the organizers of the National Railroad Hall of Fame. What began as a simple if reasonably ambitious concept in the mind of Bob Bondi to honor significant leaders in the development of the railroad in this country unfortunately took on the persona of a spectacular tourism triumph that would save the Galesburg economy if only the committee could raise $60 million plus and build an 85,000 square foot palace on the shoulder of I-74.

Too many people unquestioningly accepted this improbable Utopian vision and as reality settled on the committee organizing the Hall of Fame they recognized that success would require a ratcheting down of expectations but without totally disappointing their unflinching supporters in the Galesburg community. On Friday, February 29th the executive director of the NRRHoF, Julie King, unveiled a “refined project and fund raising plan” for the project that scaled back both the cost and building size by about half while still promising to attract160,000+ visitors annually to Galesburg. Just as importantly King acknowledged that the east side Interstate location would be dropped in favor of a downtown Galesburg location in proximity to the BNSF tracks.

At a press conference in a conference room of Galesburg's City Hall King explained, “The Hall of Fame concept has been refined during the last six months by analyzing pros and cons of a variety of experiences to ensure a deliverable visitor experience that is sustainable, able to expand over the years, and has mass appeal.” In a single sentence she defused most of the explosive myths that had been driving the unrealistic vision of just what this Hall of Fame would be and would do for Galesburg. A recognition that raising $60 million was impossible and that the huge project described earlier was impractical and financially unsustainable.

Make no mistake, the revised plan remains very ambitious. Robert Alpaugh of Campbell & Company out of Chicago emphasized this point during a telephone interview. “It is the National Railroad Hall of Fame,” he said emphatically. “I has a grand vision that will fit well into Galesburg's community development plans for downtown. The vision is much broader than just serving the people of Galesburg, this will be a nationally recognized attraction and major tourism draw.”

Alpaugh and his colleague Joanne Ray will serve in dual roles as both “fund raising counsel” and organizational consultant “assessing the project's philanthropic potential and the feasibility of raising at least $30 million to built the facility” plus “review and analyze the necessary support system that will be required of the operational facility,” explained King. “We need to not only plan to get this project started but also to insure that it can be successfully continued.”

Feasibility of the NRRHoF is not just an issue of raising the upfront cash but also of being realistic in potential visitor counts and the annual operation, maintenance and content development costs over the life of the project. King emphasized that her board has done their due diligence in devising the scaled-down project. They have hired BRC Imagination Arts to develop and refine the museum's high-tech and interactive experience; one that reflects the success of another big BRC project, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield. Additionally Economics Research Associates was hired to conduct a market analysis and projections of the return on investment in both dollars and visitors.

King takes special pride in pointing out that these projections show that done properly a project of half the original size and scope will still deliver 80-85 percent of the visitors of the originally estimated 200,000. She says it is also expected that over 400 construction related jobs will be created while the facility is built with a total estimated payroll of about $16 million. Once operational King says the Hall of Fame should drive an additional $5.5 million in new expenditures within the Galesburg area economy annually. King also believes that it will take a staff of 60-70 people to operate the Hall of Fame but she is not clear on the mix of paid versus volunteer staff. “It is likely that we will depend on a significant contribution from volunteers just as most comparable museums do but at this point it is just too early to put a number on that.”

Something else that becomes clear after talking with King and Alpaugh is that they are moving much slower in determining specifics of the project this go around. While some beautiful artwork was unveiled at the press conference it was emphasized that these are just conceptual ideas at this point. Even the scale and scope of the project remains in flux as the NRRHoF committee and their consultants further research the financial realities. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the size of the project will be reduced further in an attempt to insure success. One of the advantages of the high-tech BRC approach as opposed to the more traditional display of memorabilia is that much more can be done in a smaller space. A smaller space translates into lower operational costs, staffing and maintenance.

Very few if any museums are financially self-supporting and King acknowledged that her board does not expect to recover all operational and sustaining costs through operational revenues alone. What this means is that fund raising is more than just a matter of collecting sufficient funds to build the museum, they must also raise additional monies to supplement operational costs and support ongoing development and maintenance. “It does us no good to build a project that is not sustainable,” noted King. “Just how much additional money this involves and how we go about raising it are key issues yet to be fully determined.”

“I think Julie was really clear that we are in an exploratory phase,” said Alpaugh. His firm had just been hired the week before the announcement and he had only met the NRRHoF board and King for the first time in person earlier that day. He explained that his firm is national in scope and that the Chicago office is one of many, all of which focus on fund raising and consulting for non-profits. “If you want a project like this to succeed you must be practical and pragmatic without losing sight of the dream that drives the project. Often times that dream needs to be altered subtly or massaged to make the project work. Our company specializes in doing the back office work in bringing projects like this to fruition. BRC has been so brilliant in conceptualizing this project and that will be the story we tell.”

Alpaugh illustrated his pragmatic approach by noting that in all likelihood the Hall of Fame will draw principally from a regional basis of 300-500 miles surrounding Galesburg. He sees it as a family destination that will need to appeal to a broad array of different interests to be successful. From a fund raising standpoint Alpaugh anticipates 10-15 large donors of $500K or more with the remaining half to two-thirds of the money coming from a wide array of much smaller donors most of which will be outside of the immediate Galesburg area.

It must be acknowledged that while local excitement over the NRRHoF has been pretty widespread the project also has a small cadre of critics. Outside of the impractical size and scope of the original project most of the earlier objections to the Hall of Fame concerned the level of taxpayer support. By moving it downtown to be located within the proposed new TIF district organizers of the NRRHoF expect to be eligible for some of the TIF money, potentially as much as $2 million. There is also the issue of the level of ongoing taxpayer support that may be expected to sustain the entity if, as King expects, operational revenues fall short. And finally there is the issue of just how realistic the projected community financial impact this project will have. How realistic will their projections of local economic impact be and will the true impact exceed the anticipated on-going tax payer support?

King is forever the pragmatic optimist. She is making every attempt to be more open with the public on the status of the Hall of Fame and seeking public input. She also is seeking to maintain community excitement over the project while tempering unrealistic expectations and fostering political good will. King is juggling an improbable number of sharp knives with limited hospitalization coverage. In short, she is a breath of fresh air for a project that until recently appeared to be floating on hype alone.

“We think that this is going to be a magnificent facility but at this point we still have a lot of steps ahead of us. While we are guided by a vision and a dream we seek to have our decision-making driven by a practical, common-sense and realistic view of what we are doing. In all honesty I cannot offer any guarantees but I can assure you that my board and I will be guilty of trying.”