FORT SMITH — A fully funded U.S. Marshals Museum expects to attract about 125,000 people per year and generate about $1.8 million in annual revenue with general admission tickets for adults set at $12.50.
While admission prices make up a majority of the $1.8 million, the remaining balance of revenue would be made up in food and beverage sales, merchandise and space rental.
According to a 38-page feasibility study conducted by LDP of London, and available at the U.S. Marshals Museum website, attendance at the museum with a full house of exhibits is projected to level out at around 125,576 visits by the year 2024 after the first few years of higher attendance from what’s known as a “champagne effect” or “novelty factor.”
Details are still being worked out for how much admission will be for children, seniors and groups, according to U.S. Marshals Museum President Patrick Weeks. Projections call for admission revenues to be about $1.132 million with annual attendance leveled out at about 125,500 people in the year 2024. Projections also call for about $279,000 in food and beverage sales, $418,000 in merchandise sales, and $69,700 in “other,” which would include space rental.
The price structure was calculated by LDP based on a similar size and scale museums in similar markets factoring a per-hour “entertainment value” with a person expected to stay on average two and a half hours at the U.S. Marshals Museum.
As a math formula, local “EV, or “entertainment value” was calculated at $5 per hour based on the price for a ticket to a local cinema (ranging from $5.99 to $10), and other museums like the Clayton House ($6), Fort Smith Trolley Museum ($4 for adults and $2 for children), Fort Smith Museum of History ($7), the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center ($10), Arkansas Air and Military Museum ($10), Elevate Trampoline Park ($12.95), Parrot Island Waterpark ($15), and the Alma Aquatic Center, ($10).
Fort Smith voters go to the polls March 5-12 to decide if the museum will be furnished with a nine-month, 1-cent sales tax that is expected to fill a roughly $15.5 million gap that was not achievable from private donations.
The U.S. Marshals Museum Foundation has so far raised about $32 million in cash and pledges, with $3.4 million in land on the Arkansas River where the museum is being built. Construction of the 53,000-square-foot, $19 million museum started last summer with an anticipated opening in late September with the goals of improving civic literacy and knowledge of both the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Marshals Service. The first steel beams were installed in November.
Museum leadership says half of the expected $17 million in tax revenue from a 1-cent temporary tax, if passed, would be paid by those living outside of Fort Smith because the city is a regional retail sales hub.
The top-most question about the tax proposal, according to museum leaders, is if they will seek a renewal of the tax or if this is truly a “one-time only” tax.
U.S. Marshals Museum President Patrick Weeks has said both publicly and privately he would not be a part of any attempt for a renewal of a 1-cent museum tax. Weeks, however, said he could not make such a promise for future leadership, many years down the road.
U.S. Marshals Museum Foundation President Jim Dunn told the Fort Smith Central Improvement District Commission Jam. 15 he would “write it in blood” if that’s what it took to convince the citizens there would be no attempt for a renewal. The museum will be sustainable once it is fully operational, Dunn said. The city ordinance that calls for the special election specifies it can only be a nine-month, 1-cent tax, Dunn added.
The 1-cent would be collected between July 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020.The combined state, county and city sales tax in Fort Smith is currently 9.75 percent.
A Public Facilities Board independent of the city of Fort Smith government will provide additional accountability, Dunn told the CBID last week.
“Having a Public Faciliites Board will hold our feet to the fire to make sure we perform all of these public functions. Plus we will be reporting all of our financials,” Dunn said. “We invite an additional committee composed of citizens who look at what we have committed publicly to spending that money for, and reviewing our expenditures and report to the community this money is being wisely spent and that it is going to the completion.”
The Public Facilities Board would be comprised of five people appointed by Fort Smith Mayor George McGill: one person with a one-year term, two people with two-year terms and three people with three-year terms. Successors would be recommended by the Fort Smith Board of Directors, nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the city board.
Dunn also explained that to get a tax renewal on the ballot they would have to go before the Fort Smith Board of Directors after already saying publicly the museum leaders would not attempt a renewal.
Both of the museum entity leaders point to the museum’s ability to spur economic development in Fort Smith as a benefit. Dunn noted the “transformational” effects the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art had on Bentonville and the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum had on downtown Little Rock.
“I’m not saying that we will have the same impact in this community as those two, for a lot of different reasons. But we hope to pull people down from Crystal Bridges on I-49 and send people their way,” Dunn said of the partnerships being developed.
“The United States Marshals Museum is committed to being a cultural institution with a nationally scoped mission, here on the riverfront of Fort Smith,” Weeks added. “We’re pretty passionate about making sure that this world-class, state-of-the-art museum is an economic driver for downtown Fort Smith, and by virtue of that the rest of the city.”
Most of the fundraising has been accomplished in or near Fort Smith, Dunn noted.
Fort Smith voters who ask if they will get free admission for a certain amount of time if the tax proposal passes may find it a consolation that although museum leaders say they cannot offer free admission at first, there will be “other opportunities to celebrate citizens of Fort Smith” in the form of special weekend events and discounts on lowered prices on the lecture series, said Alice Alt, vice president of development for the U.S. Marshals Museum.
Weeks said there will be some free weekends and special events for the general public thanks to corporate sponsors. And a special rate of $20 for all three lectures in a lecture series is going to be offered this year. School groups and field trips to the museum will also receive support by those who contribute an additional 50 cents on their admission. It will go into a restricted account for the school groups, Weeks said.
“The public support initiative is for the sole purpose of getting this organization up and running as a fully functioning museum with exhibits and staff necessary to run the museum,” Weeks said. “We have to be fiscally responsible.”
Weeks noted the money from a 1-cent tax would not be for operational expenses.
“Free admission is a little bit challenging until we get an endowment built that can make sure all of the expenses are covered,” Weeks said.
However, Weeks added they are looking at possibilities just for people who live within the Fort Smith zip codes to “get some version of discounted or free admission for a period of time.”
“We don’t have any definition on that yet, because we still have a $2.5 million annual budget that 60-plus-percent of, or more, is actually having to be covered by earned revenue — through general admission, educational programs, facilities rentals, outreach programming and a number of other avenues,” Weeks said.
The museum foundation has set a $600,000 cap at annual fundraising needs, Weeks said.
Differences between the U.S. Marshals Museum project in Fort Smith and those in Laramie, Wyoming, and Oklahoma City are many, according to Dunn.
“Let’s be clear, Oklahoma City was a memorial, and not a museum, with a total budget of $7 million,” Dunn said. “There were problems with management of that, mismanagement, so it never went anywhere … It was not initially anticipated to be a museum.”
The museum in Laramie was actually a traveling exhibit created for the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Marshals Service with the help of Smithsonian Institute. Once it was done traveling, it was housed in the basement of a building and was closed part time, Dunn said. There were intentions of housing it in a star-shaped building, but that was never done, he added.
“It was not getting the attention that it did in Fort Smith and it was just never a fully functioning museum open year round, so rather than failing, as such, the U.S. Marshals Service terminated the relationship with folks out there and decided to search later for a place to house this museum.”
Weeks noted the traveling exhibition that was at Laramie was never updated and the items in that traveling exhibit are now in crates at the Fort Smith museum’s warehouse ready to use in the new museum space.
“We’re using parts and pieces of that for the new museum but it should be clear that although there was an attempt by the folks in Laramie to create a museum, they never got past just a ‘permanent home’ for a traveling exhibition,” Weeks said.
Reasons why the Fort Smith U.S. Marshals Museum was not placed in the old Frisco Depot on the Fort Smith National Historic Site include not being able to own the land, bureaucratic landlords outside the region, insufficient parking, and unfriendly ingress and egress next to the Garrison Avenue bridge.