Admission fees loom for museum visitors
By Emily Ford
SPENCER — Attendance at the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer could plummet by 30 percent if the historic landmark starts charging admission, a state official says.
Now free, the museum must begin charging visitors if state lawmakers agree with Gov. Beverly Perdue, who proposes eliminating $1 million for the museum in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.
“Drop-off is typical,” said Keith Hardison, director of the N.C. Division of State Historic Sites.
It will take several years for attendance to return to current levels, Hardison said. The museum attracts about 100,000 people annually.
The museum and town of Spencer are preparing for what appears to be inevitable — an admission fee and the resulting fallout.
Even a 10 percent decrease in visitors could mean tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue for businesses in the community, said James Meacham, executive director of the Rowan County Tourism Development Authority.
If attendance drops at the museum, retail sales also will fall, first at the museum gift shop, Meacham said.
Gas stations and restaurants will feel the impact next, with additional Spencer retailers in the third wave, he said.
The museum already charges $6 for adults and $5 for children to ride the train. Meacham recommends a $10 admission price.
But even then, the museum could not generate $1 million in lost revenue because some tickets would cost less and school groups likely would not pay full price.
If the state pulls funding from the museum, it will become an enterprise fund like the USS North Carolina Battleship, where admission costs $12 for adults and $6 for children. Studies have shown the museum can make it without state funding, Hardison said.
“We think it’s a very reasonable approach,” he said.
Spencer has a unique combination of attractions not available at any other historic site in the state, he said.
Spencer offers a museum, the historic Spencer Shops, close proximity to I-85 and train rides, he said.
“We have what we believe to be critical mass that will generate interest and generate income,” he said.
Hardison would not say what admission price the state is considering but said a ticket could include the entrance fee and a train ride. He said he’s working closely with museum Director Elizabeth Smith and the museum’s fundraising arm, the N.C. Transportation Museum Foundation.
Visitors who stroll the grounds could do so for free. If they want to enter one of several buildings on the property, they would buy a ticket at a centralized location and receive an armband or similar.
The museum would staff each building to greet visitors, check armbands and provide interpretation, Hardison said.
The museum employs 18 full-time and will not hire more, although the facility eventually could generate enough revenue to expand, he said.
The state faces a difficult economy, Hardison said.
“In order to survive so that we can later thrive, we have to take some nontraditional approaches to funding,” he said.
It’s important to continue to operate the museum and interpret history, he said.
“The only way we can do that during difficult budget times is with a modest admission charge,” Hardison said.
Admission fees are not uncommon, he said. People pay to enter amusement parks and see a movie.
“A modest fee here would help us to provide this one-of-a-kind experience,” he said.
Meacham said he’s working with museum staff and the foundation to come up with ways to generate revenue. New special events, more train excursions, vendor fees and sponsorships are all possibilities, he said.
“They have to create demand to drive revenues,” Meacham said.
As gas prices continue to rise, a visit to the museum or a special event must offer value for guests, he said.
“The cost of admission has to be worth not only their money, but their time,” Meacham said.
Hardison said the museum could pick up new visitors who thought a free site must not be worth much.
“When there is no admission charged, some people do not come, figuring that if there was something that was really worth seeing, there would be an admission fee,” Hardison said. “It’s a kind of reverse psychology.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.