KEARNEY, Neb. After years of money losses and dwindling attendance, the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument sees better days ahead.
The unusual attraction a museum highlighting America's westward migration in a building that spans Interstate 80 has never generated the revenue promised before it opened in 2000.
"We're a nonprofit and we've got the record to prove it," joked Leonard Skov, the museum's former director.
Attendance in recent years dwindled to less than one-fifth of the 300,000 annual visitors predicted when the $60 million museum opened. The archway's bondholders haven't been paid for several years.
And as a cost-cutting measure, the archway operated for more than two years under a temporary director, Skov, who worked without being paid.
But Gary Roubicek, who took the reins May 1 as the archway's paid director, believes the museum will turn a corner this year. He predicts 60,000 people will pay admission this year and that another 10,000 will attend events on the museum grounds.
Roubicek expects new activities emphasizing Native American culture, including an exhibition powwow scheduled in June, will significantly boost attendance. The Nebraska Firefighters Museum, set to open in early July on property leased from the archway foundation, also should draw more people.
Within three years, a new I-80 interchange should open near the museum, making it easier for travelers to make spur-of-the-moment stops. Lou Lenzen, a design engineer for the Nebraska Department of Roads, said construction of the $18 million interchange should be under way in 2011.
Roubicek and Skov agreed that early projections that one of every 10 vehicles on Interstate 80 would stop at the museum were unrealistic.
"Twenty-two thousand cars a day pass by here," Roubicek said, "but that's just what they do, pass by."
The closest exit is two miles to the west of the archway. Eastbound travelers who don't see the exit before they pass under the arch must travel five miles to the next exit, which merely allows them to turn around and drive seven miles back to the previous exit.
The archway was the brainchild of the late Gov. Frank Morrison, a history buff who thought Kearney was the ideal place to locate a museum about U.S. westward expansion, being at the confluence of major routes from Omaha; Nebraska City; St. Joseph, Mo.; and Kansas City, Mo.
"He was thinking about doing something like this even before there was an Interstate," recalled Skov, a longtime friend. Skov is a retired University of Nebraska at Kearney education professor who worked for the Nebraska Department of Education when Morrison was governor in the 1960s.
This month, True West Magazine named the archway its top museum of western history.
But critics say the museum is too much like a theme park, noting that the architect also designed structures for Disneyland and Disney World.
Roubicek acknowledged the criticism. He said archway leaders want to shift the focus toward education instead of being an "entertainment mecca."
The archway now offers reduced admission rates to students on field trips; marketing director Ronnie O'Brien has developed education programs on historical topics for students; and the archway allows Boy Scouts and similar organizations to camp overnight in the museum.
Archway volunteer John Cruzeiro said he's sold on the new approach. A retired school superintendent, Cruzeiro didn't have much use for the archway when he moved to Kearney five years ago.
"I was its biggest detractor," he said.
Cruzeiro said it was imperative for the archway to develop new programs that attract repeat visitors.
O'Brien, for example, is working with the National Park Service to develop a full-size replica of a Pawnee earth lodge, comparable to the popular Pawnee lodge on display at the Field Museum in Chicago.
And although it lacks water service, the archway now offers free overnight camping for recreational vehicles which Roubicek hopes will draw more travelers into the museum.
Roubicek, former owner of Kearney's Burger King franchise, said better marketing, more activities and a better relationship with the business community are keys to future success for the archway.
The facility wrote off $40 million of its $60 million debt in 2002. Bondholders agreed in 2007 to defer payment on the remaining $20 million until the interchange is built, said Chuck Pallesen, a Lincoln lawyer who represents the archway.
Recent market research shows that about 75 percent of museum visitors hail from other states, 22 percent come from Nebraska and about 3 percent are international, Skov said.
Roubicek, however, said the archway can't count on the Interstate to guarantee its future.
"You can't depend on the Interstate, particularly when you don't have an exit," he said. "Instead of wringing our hands and waiting for them to build, we're going to move forward."
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