The Independence City Council received a brief history lesson this week on one of the city’s tourism sites.
Dave Aamodt, curator of the National Frontier Trails Museum, provided an overview of why and how the museum started in Independence and a reminder that the museum has remained largely unchanged for several years due to budget and staff reductions.
The museum at 318 W. Pacific opened in 1990 and is approaching its 25th anniversary. Aamodt said he wasn’t making any proposal or directly asking for money – just educating a council that has experienced some recent turnover for the eventual time when it has to make decisions about the museum.
“Not only are there new council people,” Aamodt said after Monday’s study session, “but it’s only been a few elections since none of the council members were here, so I was just providing background.”
Aamodt explained that while there have been multiple studies producing similar recommendations about how the museum could move forward, and an advisory committee was formed and later dissolved, the museum has not had enough resources for notable changes. The museum has expanded its education programs and partnerships with area school districts, but a staff that started with nine people is now five.
Recommendations have included a separate board of directors, restoring staff, broadening the museum’s regional appeal and possibly remodeling exhibits.
“We believe there’s no more need for studies,” Aamodt said. “We just need the ability to implement what we’ve been told.”
Last year’s NFTM budget checked in at $340,710. For this year, it’s $260,907. Admissions netted approximately $44,000 last fiscal year and more than $42,000 the year before that. This year’s budget projected for $46,000 in admissions, plus $25,000 in gift shop sales ($2,000 more than last year’s net).
Replying to a question from Council Member Karen DeLuccie, Aamodt said the last time he purchased something for an exhibit was two years ago, from money that was “scraped together.”
Aamodt said a replacement for the stolen and destroyed Pioneer Woman statue is in the works, but he hasn’t yet entered into a contract with the sculptor. He estimated a replacement statue would cost $40,000. Between donations collected by the Friends of the NFTM and money in the Truman Heartland Community Foundation that originally was earmarked for rehabbing the original statue, Aamodt said about $31,000 would be available for a new Pioneer Woman.
If the museum does purchase a new one, it likely would be placed on land it owns on the other side of the railroad track that runs next to the museum building.
Responding to another question from DeLuccie, City Manager Robert Heacock said there can be a fund set up to save money annually for exhibits.
“Council can prioritize funds on a yearly basis,” he said. “It can be done. It could help with fundraising – people seeing there’s money there going toward that.”
Heacock also noted after the meeting that the council has set aside $150,000 in the upcoming budget for “historic sites capital improvements.”
Council Member Scott Roberson asked if the Tourism Department does any marketing specific to the museum to try boosting the visitor count. Tourism Director Cori Day said her department markets for all historic sites, though the Frontier Trails Museum requires some niche marketing.
Council Member Curt Dougherty suggested that the Tourism Department could be directly aiding or providing more for the museum, given the department’s budget of about $1.4 million.
“I think we have a priority problem, a spending problem,” he said. “It’s a tourist attraction, not a police station or fire station. You can’t fix that?”
Heacock said after the meeting that the city can’t just rely on advertising for the museum.
“We have to create an experience that leads to repeat visits and word of mouth,” he said. “We’re using more social media (for historic sites) and cross marketing with events being hosted in town.
“It’s a balancing act between maintaining sites, keeping them fresh and drawing people to generate revenue. Independence is uniquely positioned as a regional commercial site. A lot of things happen here, and it doesn’t hurt to have a president.”
The tricky part is that the city can’t justify siphoning dollars for the museum and other historic sites from departments like fire and police.
“It’s tough for something like that to compete against public safety,” he said. “The public expects us to use the resources for basic services first. I think it all underscores the need for community conversation and input.”
Mayor Eileen Weir said it certainly would be possible to form a committee to figure out the best way of preserving the museum and moving it forward.
“I think we’re all in agreement as to this history’s value,” she said.