Decision still up in the air for Archway museum


October 2nd, 2013

Lincoln, NE — A local battle is brewing over the future of one of Nebraska’s most visible attractions-the Great Platte River Road Archway, which spans I-80 near Kearney. The question in the wake of bankruptcy: Should taxpayers pay to keep the struggling museum open?

One minute an ominous thunderstorm, then clouds clear and it’s nothing but blue skies and sunshine over a replica of Fort Kearny, circa 1848. It’s a scene created inside the Great Platte River Road Archway museum, depicting ever-changing conditions for early plains settlers. But it might as well be the story of the museum itself.

Dark clouds have hung over the Arch for years as the $60 million museum has been plagued by financial problems somewhat created by greatly inflated attendance expectations. A couple weeks ago a break in the storm when a judge ruled in favor of a bankruptcy plan that reduces the museum’s debt to bondholders and vendors from $20 million to $100,000. A chance for the Arch to start over.

The Great Platte River Road Archway museum. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)

The Great Platte River Road Archway museum. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)

“We’re in a critical time right now of, you know, life or death in keeping this place open,” said Joel Johnson, a retired surgeon and former state senator from Kearney who is now chair of the Great Platte River Road Archway Foundation. “Now how can we keep the doors open and keep this place functioning as we look to the future of finding ways to sustain this with either people making contributions, groups doing it, or foundations, or whatever that we need to approach as well.”

Part of this mix would mean breaking a promise. When the museum was built a decade ago, it was built with a guarantee that it would pay for itself, without any taxpayer support. Johnson says the Foundation intends to ask the City of Kearney and Buffalo County for help from each, likely $200,000 a year for the next three years. Johnson’s sales pitch? Few museums exist without support of this type.

With the history around the state of Nebraska, where counties or cities all over the state of Nebraska do support local museums and so on, we thought that was the reasonable place to look as well,” Johnson said.

Johnson said this funding coupled with current attendance of about 50 thousand visitors a year will keep the museum running while it works to build a long-term business plan.

“I guess what we’re saying is, city and county, give us enough time to feel our way where we’re going,” Johnson said.

Here’s where storm clouds start forming again in the distance. While not a scientific poll, anonymous comments attached to a recent Kearney Hub website article were overwhelmingly against tax funds for the Arch saying things like “no tax money for this money pit.” Kearney City Council and Buffalo County Board members we talked to are open to proposals, but with concerns.

City Councilman Randy Buschkoetter said he hasn’t made a final decision.

“I’m leaning toward the direction of thinking that it’s very difficult to use money for that purpose, because for one, that means we’re not using money for other purposes,” Buschkoetter said.

Buschkoetter said, for example, $400,000 would go a long ways toward building a skate park the city has been talking about for years. County Board members Buss Biehl and Dennis Reitter would both like to see taxpayers have a chance to vote on the issue and they’ve heard concerns from constituents.

“I feel that if county’s going to be involved it needs to be done by a vote of the people,” Biehl said.

Reitter said most people really don’t want to pay taxes for it.

“They feel they’ve got enough taxes and it’s not something they want to support that way,”Reitter said. “I don’t think any of them want it to disappear either.”

City Council member Jonathan Nikkila sees value in funding things that don’t make money, like libraries. But he also knows some people in Kearney feel frustrated.

“You know this is a project that they didn’t ask for, and certainly didn’t complain because at the time it was being funded by private dollars,” Nikkila said. “But they just feel like they’ve been put in an awkward position as taxpayers.”

In general, City Council and County Board members we talked with say they’ll reserve final judgment until they see funding proposals and some are torn because they believe the museum is a quality facility that’s become something of a landmark for the area . Archway Foundation chair Joel Johnson says in the coming weeks there will be more discussion, a Department of Roads-mandated inspection of the Archway structure and then a formal proposal to the two government bodies. Right now the museum is running on a bare bones budget. Some employees have been asked to resign and the interim director is working for no pay. And what happens if the Buffalo County Board and Kearney City Council vote against funding?

“I guess what we’d have to do is go to the public and ask for a lot of help, and a lot of help in a hurry,” Johnson said. “See the tourist season now is pretty much ending, and so for the next six months the income of the Archway goes way down.”

But there’s another little ray of sunshine for the Arch. Johnson says attendance is up 12 percent since a long-awaited Interstate exit closer to the museum opened a month ago. More folks like Bob Kaufmann of Illinois are stopping.

“Heard about this from friends that lived in Iowa,” Kaufmann said. “Been under it once or twice but never stopped, but glad I have today.”

In the next few months local politicians and maybe voters may have a lot to do with whether one of the state’s most recognizable attractions will be available for other travelers.

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