Kearney Arch backers seek public, private pledges - Omaha.com
Published Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:42 am
Kearney Arch backers seek public, private pledges

KEARNEY, Neb. — Archway leaders and supporters will ask the City of Kearney and Buffalo County for money to keep Kearney's embattled icon afloat.

Joel Johnson, chairman of the Great Platte River Road Archway Foundation, said he and others already have approached city and county officials and soon will formally request $200,000 from each for the next three years for a total of $1.2 million.

“We have to find a source of revenue beyond admissions, and what we want to propose to the city and county is that they help us out for three years so we can get back on our feet and start raising money from foundations and individuals with the type of support most museums use to keep their doors open,” Johnson said.

The requests for public funding come as archway officials draft a recovery plan as part of the archway's Chapter 11 bankruptcy. An effort also has been started to enlist $140,000 in private pledges.

Kearney businessman Tom Henning, who is leading a private effort to save the archway, told about 30 community leaders at a meeting Tuesday that their pledges are needed.

He said that in just a few days he already has gathered $50,000 in pledges, and “now we need to raise another $90,000 in the next two or three weeks.”

The archway will incorporate the pledges and possible support from the city and county in its bankruptcy reorganization plan to repay bondholders and vendors and cover operating expenses until a permanent operating plan is in place.

Dave Oldfather, a member of the archway foundation's board, said at Tuesday's meeting that archway officials hope the bankruptcy judge decides that only a small sum must be paid to bondholders.

“The big unknown is what the judge says we owe the bondholders,” Oldfather said. “We've proposed $50,000, but if the judge says $1 million, we don't have anything.”

Johnson, archway business manager Sharm Loeffler and the archway's counsel met two weeks ago in Lincoln with bankruptcy court officials. They said they see no way that the archway can repay the $20 million it owes bondholders.

The archway also owes suppliers and vendors more than $121,000.

Johnson said Monday that the archway expects an uptick in admissions this year when Kearney's east Interstate 80 interchange opens one mile east of the archway.

The opening of a Nebraska Department of Tourism visitors center inside the archway also could boost admissions, as could the flood of tourists expected in Kearney for the June 30-July 1 national centennial of the Lincoln Highway.

Because of high gasoline prices and hot weather, the archway's 2012 attendance of 49,960 was the lowest since the attraction opened in 2000.

In 2012, operating expenses exceeded the operational income of $480,000 by about $365,000.

During the bankruptcy hearing two weeks ago, Johnson said the bondholders' attorney asked whether added attendance might allow the archway to repay its bond debt.

Johnson said attendance increases of 30 percent or 50 percent wouldn't be enough to cover operating expenses, but without bond debt, the archway would come close to covering operational costs if it doubled attendance.

“Sharm Loeffler then said we even projected what a 100 percent increase would do. The archway would be closer to self-sustaining, but there still would be no money for the bondholders,” he said.

According to Johnson, the archway made bond payments in 2002 and 2003, but attendance fell off after the early years, and the only payments after those came when the archway collected on two hail damage settlements and sold property for the nearby I-80 exit.

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