Seven years ago, Shannon Overby’s job changed for the better. In a matter of months, the obstacles she faced in trying to attract visitors to a college town, whose most well-known landmark was the university’s football stadium, were gone. So were the days of cajoling groups and organizations to convince them to hold their conventions in a Texas city not named Houston, Dallas or San Antonio.
Suddenly, the 17th largest metropolitan area in the Lone Star State became a destination for visitors from across the nation and the globe.
“My job is a lot easier now,” admits Overby, the director of sales and marketing for the Bryan/College Station Visitors Bureau.
She has the George H.W. Bush library to thank for that. When Texas A&M beat out both the University of Houston and Rice University in 1991 to serve as the site for the keeper of Bush’s legacy, the Bryan/College Station area was not only ready to become known for something more than Aggies football, it was also primed for an increase in tourism and local economic development.
That materialized six years later, when the $83 million Bush library officially opened in 1997.
“It’s been huge,” Overby says. “It’s helped us sell the community. It’s put Bryan-College Station on the map nationally.”
With approximately 150,000 to 175,000 people visiting the library on an annual basis, the Bryan/College Station community and business owners have enjoyed the residual economic benefits that have come along with the intellectual and cultural infusion created by its presence. Douglas Menarchik, the director of the Bush Library, says that the area’s hotel and restaurant industry has seen a marked rise in revenue. Along with the $300,000 to $400,000 generated through ticket sales and the $100,000 gained from the gift shop, he estimates that library visitors have dropped $20 million each year to eat and sleep while in town to attend the museum and exhibits.
“It’s been a tremendous help,” he says. “Any presidential library has a cultural or economic benefit. But a larger community would bring in more people and have a larger economic impact, in my view.”
This bodes well for Little Rock, which is expecting its own spike in economic development in the city’s downtown when the Clinton Presidential Center opens this month.
“It’s already created a significant amount of dollars,” Little Rock mayor Jim Dailey said. “All of this has a momentum like a snowball gathering more snow. I think it’s only going to continue to get better.”
Earlier this year the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated that an additional $8.65 million to $17.5 million will be pumped annually into Arkansas’s capital city after the opening of the Clinton Presidential Center, which expects to attract 130,000 to 300,000 visitors per year.
Considering the impact that the Bush Library has had in a predominantly rural area like Bryan and College Station (“We don’t have an interstate,” Menarchik quips), the $165 million glass-enclosed building that will jut out over the Arkansas River has the potential to keep on giving for years to come.
That has been the case with the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library since it opened its doors in 1986 amidst protests in Atlanta. Unlike in College Station, where the potential for economic growth was welcomed with open arms, preservationists battled developers in Atlanta for nearly nine years in an effort to stop a $110 million project that included a four-lane parkway from coming to fruition. Resembling the situation in Little Rock, where the city’s acquisition of land near the river and the methods used to fund it were challenged, Atlanta’s residents were opposed to the addition of a thoroughfare that would divide five neighborhoods listed on the National Register of Historic Places. From 1982 to 1991, controversy swirled over the roadway intended to provide access to the library and the initial plans were scaled down to achieve compromise with those who opposed its creation.
Yet, those residents who campaigned against the intrusion of construction, have ultimately been the beneficiaries, according to Jay Hakes, the director of the Carter Presidential Library.
“It’s had a huge positive impact on property values around the museum,” he says. “It’s become a very desirable place to live.”
Nevertheless, Hakes admits that the impact of the library on tourism is difficult to measure, considering that there are other attractions in Atlanta that draw visitors. Library attendance has also fluctuated, while suffering a sharp decline since the year it opened. Hakes says that 90,000 people on average file through the museum annually, which is considerably less than the 190,388 that walked through its halls in 1987, its first full year of operation.
“I don’t think it’s steady,” Hakes says. “When the Olympics were here in 1996, that was a big year for the library.”
Hakes says that despite the overall decline in visitors the museum still grosses approximately $500,000 to $600,000 per year from ticket sales and gift shop receipts. He says that in order for the Carter Presidential Library to remain an attraction, it must bring in traveling exhibits. Hakes said that when the novelty of the library wears off, one can no longer hope that “if you build it, they will come.”
“I don’t think when a museum is fresh and new it’s a concern,” he says. “But as time goes on, it’s something you definitely want to consider. There’s competition to get high-quality exhibits.”
And that competition seems to extend to construction of the extravagant libraries, as well. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first president to enshrine his legacy in Hyde Park, N.Y. in 1941, the price tags and size of the facilities used to house the records of our nation’s leaders have grown considerably.
The Clinton Presidential Center, which will cover 152,000 square feet, has cost nearly double the amount of the Bush Library, the second-most-expensive building of its kind. While endowments from each president and his foundation are now required if the building exceeds 70,000 feet, they only provide a small portion of what is needed to operate the libraries. As a result, the taxpayers’ burden is only lightened slightly. Last year, the National Archives and Records Administration needed $42 million to run the presidential library system, which is considerably more than the $64,000 that was required in 1955.
But for the residents of cities where presidential libraries are located, those costs are negligible. The local economic impact a library has is more significant. That is why the battle has already begun among schools in Texas to be the home of George W. Bush’s library. And as one president said, to the victors go the spoils.
“It lends you great prestige,” Menarchik said of having a presidential library. “I cannot imagine another community not wanting one.”
Neither can Overby.
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