Cautious steps on reopening local historic sites

By Mike Genet
The Examiner

Although the Bingham-Waggoner Estate and the Vaile Mansion in Independence will reopen to the public May 1 after being closed more than a year amid the pandemic, the city does not plan to reopen the National Frontier Trails Museum before the end of 2021. 

City Manager Zach Walker, echoing a previous sentiment by Mayor Eileen Weir, said there are no plans for the museum on Pacific Avenue south of the Square to be permanently closed, though.

National Frontier Trails Museum volunteer Dave Ragan asks questions of Independence second graders during a student field trip last December. Although the Trails Museum and other Independence tourism sites are closed amid the pandemic, the city is slated to receive about $1 million in federal CARES Act funds for specific tourism marketing.

“It really became cost-prohibitive this year,” Walker said. “We’re trying to hedge against future losses.”

Revenue from the city’s hotel sales tax, which provides nearly all of the city’s tourism division funding, took a tremendous hit during the city’s fiscal year that ends June 30 – about $1 million, Walker said.

“We had a strong fund balance, so we’ve not had to do staff layoffs,” he said, “and we’re going to be well-positioned to hit the ground running when we do reopen.”

The largely volunteer staff particularly helps offset operating expenses at the museum, the Bingham-Waggoner and the Vaile, but running and programming a museum comes with a higher cost. The fiscal year 2019 and 2020 budgets for the Trails Museum were about $460,000, and the museum’s three full-time positions were left vacant after a museum budget of $335,000 for fiscal 2021 was approved. 

Museum administrator Dave Aamodt retired in 2019 and had not yet been replaced when the pandemic hit in early 2020. The other full-time employees – the event and education program manager and collections manager – left for different jobs early in 2020, and the city had been ready to conduct interviews to fill the positions when the pandemic halted that process. In addition, Eric Urfer, who has led the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department for more than 16 years, recently announced his retirement. 

Being immediately short on funds and personnel, Walker said, “the visitor experience would be greatly diminished.”

The Trails Museum has been open for some group tours led by volunteers, and that will continue in 2021. The Independence School District for years has taken all students in a couple of grades for field trips.

“That’s one of the unique calling cards of Independence, is the strong volunteer presence, and they make that possible,” Walker said. 

Fully reopening the museum to the public will largely be dependent on improving tax revenues, Walker said, so a decision regarding 2022, which will be part of the upcoming fiscal year budget, will probably come later in 2021. The city plans to use some funds from the federal American Rescue Plan to plug some budget shortfalls this year, Walker said, but he doesn’t want to reopen the museum based solely on those one-time dollars.

“Fingers crossed, the severity of the virus diminishes and people resume travel,” Walker said.

While the Vaile Mansion will reopen for tours, the nonprofit group that helps run the building had previously decided to not have the annual Strawberry Festival in June. None of the longstanding events at the Bingham-Waggoner and Vaile took place in 2020, though the buildings have been rented out for some paranormal tours.

The pandemic hit a couple months after the city contracted to have the  the Pioneer Spring Cabin moved and refurbished on the Trails Museum grounds in 2019, and the city has put out a request for proposals on possible refurbishing projects for the old mill office building that’s also on the grounds, next to the railroad tracks. The museum is built into the salvaged remains of the former Gates-Waggoner flour mill that burned in the 1960s.