Could attendance at the Rock Hall be the best indicator of visitor numbers at the Olympic Museum?
Could attendance at the Rock Hall be the best indicator of visitor numbers at the Olympic Museum?

Three years ago, the city of Colorado Springs received state tourism funding to create a City for Champions — four projects designed to increase tourism in Colorado Springs.

One of those, the U.S. Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame, has some big predictions to meet as its organizers get ready to formally break ground.

In its application for state funding, the city estimated the museum would have an annual attendance of 350,000 visitors, 82 percent from out of state. Total revenue was estimated a $9.08 million in the museum’s first year of operation, rising to $12.9 million annually by year 11.

Those numbers helped persuade the Colorado Economic Development Commission to commit millions of dollars in state tax increment financing to the project, giving the long-anticipated museum instant credibility.

Since then, the formidable Dick Celeste has wrangled $51 million in promised funding from various sources, including El Pomar and Anschutz foundations. Architects, contractors and exhibit designers have been chosen, and derelict structures have been cleared from a 1.7-acre site at the intersection of Vermijo Avenue and Sahwatch Street.

Speaking while en route to Denver for a meeting with project architects, Celeste was upbeat.

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“We need another $15 million to put this thing in the ground,” Celeste said. “We’ve sort of harvested the low-hanging fruit, so now it gets a little harder — but I’m confident.”

Museum backers wanted to finish the building in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics. That timetable now seems optimistic, with only 17 months to go before the Feb. 9, 2018, opening ceremony in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Will the museum open in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020?

Lessons learned 

It may be instructive to look at the long struggle to fund and build the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.

While serving as Ohio governor from 1983-91, Celeste was instrumental in bringing the Rock Hall to Cleveland. It finally opened with a grand gala on Sept. 1, 1995, nine years after Celeste announced that Cleveland had been chosen to host the facility. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that it took so long to build, given its immediate and enduring success. But that wasn’t apparent at the time.

In 1988, Celeste unveiled I.M. Pei’s design for the Cleveland site during the third annual Hall of Fame ceremony, a black-tie dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel’s Grand Ballroom in New York. As reported in The New York Times, Celeste’s remarks were somewhat subdued, if typically optimistic.

“[The Hall of Fame] will be a true cultural asset,” he said, “something that not only speaks to several generations, but to people around the world. It might be more of an attraction than the Country and Western Hall of Fame.”

Raising money was a challenge. Celeste and Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich (who succeeded Celeste as governor in 1991) put together a $65 million public funding package, supplemented by $30 million in private funding. Public and private funding efforts were supported by a 1992 feasibility study by Deloitte & Touche that projected 600,000 to 1 million visitors annually. In 1996, the Rock Hall’s first full year of operation, the venue drew 867,000 visitors; a number that dropped by 29 percent to 615,000 in its second year. Since then, attendance has averaged around 500,000 annually. In early 2015, the Rock Hall welcomed its 10 millionth visitor.

By almost any measure, the Rock Hall has been a success. According to its website, more than 92 percent of visitors come from locations outside a 100-mile radius. The museum’s cumulative economic impact on the Cleveland area is estimated at approximately $2 billion, or $100 million annually. It has helped anchor and redefine Cleveland, a city that has experienced severe economic challenges during the past two decades. The museum has been described by local boosters as “the single, unique culture asset that differentiates Cleveland from other cities.”

The organization’s financial statements are those of a prosperous and sustainable nonprofit, although there are a few red flags. On the plus side, the most recent available balance sheet shows less than $4.2 million in debt and about $88 million in assets, including $25 million in liquid assets. Operating revenues of $21 million in 2014 included $7.3 million in “contributed funds,” while operating expenses came to $21.2 million. The organization’s website does not include annual visitor figures, although admissions revenue appears to reflect a slight downward trend.

Dick Celeste was instrumental in funding the Rock Hall; he’s now focused on the Olympic Museum.
Dick Celeste was instrumental in funding the Rock Hall; he’s now focused on the Olympic Museum.

Comparisons

“As the Olympic Museum was being conceived, we thought that the Rock Hall was the most comparable facility,” said Doug Price, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There are a number of such museums/hall of fames out there, but not many that have the universal appeal that this one will.”

Are the 2013 projections realistic? That’s a matter of opinion.

Naysayers:

• The Rock Hall and the Olympics appeal to different markets. The Olympics are biennial 10-day events, usually held in other countries, with transient stars who quickly fade from national consciousness. The Rolling Stones can still sell out stadium concerts, while Mary Lou Retton couldn’t draw flies.

• Sports halls of fame in general have experienced declining attendance during the past decade. That might be because they’re located in out-of-the way small cities (check) and the sports they represent have been plagued by scandals and drug use (check).

• The city’s out-of-state visitor numbers were deliberately inflated to attract state funding — much of the visitation will be from folks who come here for other purposes. While the museum won’t keep anyone away, it won’t attract many either.

• The city’s obdurate refusal to allow retail marijuana sales will deter thousands of potential visitors, damaging all local attractions.

Supporters:

• The Olympics are uniquely aspirational, not big money sports. By branding itself as Olympic City USA, Colorado Springs has created a powerful identity, one that will be epitomized by the museum. The themes of purpose, dedication, sacrifice, hard work and eventual success are universal and inspirational.

• Colorado Springs is not Cooperstown, Canton (Ohio) or Springfield (Mass.) — those cities only have their halls of fame to attract visitors. We’re already vibrant, diverse and exciting.

• Given that more than a million people visit the Garden of the Gods every year and 600,000 visit the summit of Pikes Peak, that 350,000 number doesn’t seem so improbable.

• Do visitor numbers matter? The museum will be debt-free, have a substantial endowment and local governments will have incurred no debt to support it. It will directly employ hundreds during construction, dozens when open and will indirectly support many more. A visitor count of 350,000 would be wonderful — but so would 275,000.

“I think it’s going to be great,” said Price. “Imagine a family coming down I-25 with a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old. They stop at the new Academy Visitor Center, interact with cadets, and then go down to the Olympic Museum. The kids will say they want to be cadets and Olympians — believe me, this is going to work!”

Yet prescient as Dick Celeste’s vision for the Rock Hall may have been, the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn., has pulled into the lead, attracting more than a million visitors in 2015. That’s thanks to a 200,000-square-foot addition completed in 2014, feeding off Nashville’s powerful music culture.