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If they do a museum, will anybody visit it? Expert says they will

March 23, 2000

It probably isn't fair, but like a big barnacle on the hull of a ship, the failure of the Hagerstown Ice & Sports Complex to live up to promoters' initial predictions has been a drag on every project that's come along since that proposal surfaced in 1996.

Citizens and elected officials, burned badly because they abandoned their customary caution, now need plenty of assurances that "the next project" won't be their next big mistake.

On the Antietam Creek Coalition, the job of convincing citizens and elected officials that a National Civil War Museum in downtown Hagerstown will draw the thousands of people it needs to be successful falls to Roland Ramirez, a consultant with Texas-based Beach & Ramirez.

Ramirez is in the business of forecasting demand, from everything from industrial park lots to tourist attractions like Sea World of Texas. In addition to his consulting work, he also testifies as an expert of witness in court cases involving demand forecasting.

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Ramirez doesn't seem like the bragging type, but when pressed about his track record, he says that "I've been very fortunate in that I've never been wrong in my forecasting to the extent that it has caused a project to go under."

And most of the time, he says the numbers of people he predicts will visit a certain attraction "are exceeded, because of my conservative approach."

Provided the project is well done and marketed aggressively, Ramirez says, it should have no problem attracting 300,000 people a year. Getting to that figure, however, involved a combination of three sometimes complex approaches.

One was what's called a "trendline analysis," Ramirez said, which involved looking at historical attractions within a 30-mile radius of Hagerstown. Since 1995, Ramirez found that 2 million people a year visited places like the Antietam Battlefield, the C&0 Canal, Fort Frederick and the Hager House.

The next step was finding a "twin," a place where the same thing has been done previously, and most important, successfully, Ramirez said.

They found it in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where there is not only a preserved Civil War battlefield, but a museum built around a Civil War gunboat that was sunk in 1863 and raised 100 years later.

Ramirez said the coalition found that 21.3 percent of those -about 115,000 people - who visited the battlefield also stopped at the museum. Given that Vicksburg is not close to a major metropolitan area, as Hagerstown is, Ramirez said there's a potential attendance here of 400,000 a year.

The third approach Ramirez used involved something called a growth trends model. Looking at things like domestic travel in Maryland, Hagerstown and Washington County population trends, retail sales, traffic counts and the demand for hotel/motel rooms, Ramirez said he tried to determine whether those numbers were stable, growing or falling.

"We found that everything was stable or growing," he said, adding that the numbers show that tourist visits to Western Maryland are increasing.

His analysis also showed a 3.5 percent annual growth in visits to attractions within a 30-mile radius of Hagerstown, but to be conservative, he plugged a 2 percent growth rate into his numbers.

On the low end, Ramirez predicts that, assuming an aggressive marketing campaign and no major downturns in the economy, it should be no problem to attract 300,000 a year.

Ramirez didn't say this, but how many visitors the museum draws will also depend on winning affiliation with the prestigious Smithsonian Institution and on the quality of the exhibits themselves.

Whether or not coalition members admit it, they will be competing with a facility already under construction that also aspires to be a National Civil War Museum. It's in Harrisburg, Pa., where officials have spent $17 million on artifacts alone, including Gen. George McClellan's sword and Gen. Robert E. Lee's personal account of the battle of Gettysburg.

Design of the exhibits here will be done under the direction of James "Chip" Jeffries, of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, which worked on the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Jeffries says the Hagerstown museum will be about exploring the people and events leading up to the Civil War, and its aftermath. There will be historic pieces on display, but they won't be the focus of the exhibits.

"This is not about collections, but about the people behind the collections," Jeffries said.

It will also look at how warfare changed as a result of new technology in weaponry, and how metal-working went from a craft practiced by a few to mass production.

Jeffries has done color illustrations of exhibits he has in mind and like Dennis Frye, the local historian who's the sparkplug behind this project, his enthusiasm is contagious.

Here's the key question, however: Is it contagious enough to inspire city and county elected officials to buy and tear down most of a city block to house this thing?

And remember, we're not talking about a vacant hulk like the Baldwin House, but about multiple structures that house at least a dozen businesses, including a stock brokerage recently renovated to the tune of $250,000.

We're talking about a big dream now, and before elected officials invest too much political capital in it, they've got to be convinced that it won't be something taxpayers point to when they want to discourage the community from taking a chance on the next big project.




Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers. Write to him at P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21741.

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