Someone once said if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door.
But in southeastern Utah, officials have put a new twist on the time-worn adage: Simply build a better museum and hope the world, i.e., tourists with plenty of money to spend, will beat a path to southern Utah.Since 1988, more than $5 million has been or is being spent on seven new museums or renovation of existing museums in six southeastern Utah communities, with plans in place to spend even more in the years ahead.
It is all part of an ambitious effort to enhance tourism in southeastern Utah. "I see the museum corridor as an invaluable component, no question about it," said Bill Howell, executive director of the Southeast Association of Governments. "Museums are one of the best draws we have off the interstate."
Howell was largely responsible for bringing several competing proposals under a single "museum consortium" funding proposal that successfully garnered an array of federal, state and local grants.
In fact, museum construction and renovation now represent one of the largest capital improvement projects in southeastern Utah over the past three years.
Almost $3.9 million came from the Community Impact Board, which distributes oil, gas and coal royalty payments designed to offset impacts on local communities. The museum funding represents the first time the CIB has funded museums with tax monies traditionally used for highway, sewer and water developments.
While the CIB looked favorably on the museum proposals, the CIB funding gravy train may be grinding to a halt. The CIB recently turned down a request by the community of Fairview in central Utah for a $500,000 grant and a $300,000 loan for museum expansion to house a replica of the Huntington mammoth.
"The funding of museums with CIB funds is very recent phenomenon," said Shirl Clarke, administrator of the CIB fund. "And now the policy of the board is shifting toward loans rather than grants."
Howell and other officials in southeastern Utah say they should be able to complete most projects with funds currently available. Once completed, the museums will begin cooperative promotions designed to steer tourists from one museum to the next, with each museum specializing in a different aspect of paleontology, archaeology, geology or history.
But some state history officials are concerned: It is easier to build new museums than it is to fund their operation once they are built. In fact, that was a major reason why Helper dropped out of the consortium.
Howell has proposed that the state Division of History hire a traveling museum curator that could oversee operations at all museums in rural Utah, thereby maintaining professional standards, developing exhibits and helping museums achieve national accreditation.
That $50,000 proposal was rejected by Gov. Norm Bangerter. "With the millions so far invested, the untold number of priceless artifacts requiring proper archival and the untold monies to be earned by tourism, $50,000 a year seems like a small investment," Howell said.
Many museum officials privately question the wisdom of spending so much money on new museums without a commitment from state or local officials to properly operate the facilities once built. And they question whether the economic returns of museums are anywhere close to the rationale being used by city and county officials to obtain the funding to build the facilities.
"It's no secret that museums operated by the Division of State Parks are notorious money losers," said one museum official. "You don't build museums to make money; you build them to preserve the past and to improve the quality of life of those who visit them."
And considering museum visitors spend an average of about 20 minutes in museums, even the most ardent supporters of museums are divided as to whether any of Utah's museums will become the destination points local supporters hope for. Some fear they will become nothing more than toilet stops for people already passing through the area, but will offer no real economic advantages to the community.
"People like museums," said Bruce Louthan, chairman of the Grand County Historic Preservation Commission. "But they also have a very limited attention span. And it's doubtful they would drive very far out of their way just to see another museum."
One new museum is already beset with problems. "Visitation at the stuntman museum is practically nil," Howell said. "They have three or four people a day, and something needs to be done to promote its existence or develop a more exciting program."
Unlike the other museums in southeastern Utah, the stuntman museum is not publicly owned or operated, even though CIB funds were used to build it.
The flood of museums has also resulted in sometimes heated competition between museums. The Castle Dale museum is currently in competition with the CEU museum in Price over the question of who should exhibit the wealth of dinosaur bones from that area.
The Price museum has traditionally exhibited dinosaurs, but Castle Dale argues that because the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry is in Emery County the dinosaur exhibits should also be in Emery County.
"It doesn't make sense to have two museums 30 miles apart showing the same bones," Howell said. "Emery County should give serious consideration to exhibits on geology, ice-age mammals and the pioneer heritage of eastern Utah. The CEU Museum can then focus on dinosaurs and prehistoric Indians (as they are currently doing)."
Then the two museums could complement each other with two different stories to tell. "The two sides need to kiss and make up," he said.
The following are some details about the seven museum projects now in the works in southeastern Utah:
- The new John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, which received $1,073,655 in grants and a $300,000 no-interest loan, all from the CIB. Eventually, the museum will meet national accreditation standards.
- Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding, which received a $850,000 CIB grant for museum expansion and renovation to comply with national accreditation standards. More funding is needed.
- College of Eastern Utah's Prehistoric Museum in Price, which received $800,000 in CIB grants, $640,000 in federal grants and donated land from the city of Price. The project will double the size of the museum, as well as bring it up to national museum accreditation standards.
- The Helper Mining and Railroad Museum, which received $180,000 for renovation, computers and cosmetic improvements. Helper pulled out of the museum consortium before completing the project, which eventually would have totaled about $1 million.
- The new and as-yet-unnamed natural history museum in Castle Dale, which has received $1 million in CIB grants. From the outset, the museum has been plagued with cost overruns, and more funding may yet be needed.
- The Dan O'Laurie Museum in Moab, which received about $125,000 in private grants for museum construction. While part of the museum consortium, it is the only museum of the seven not to receive CIB funding.
- The new Hollywood Stuntman's Hall of Fame Museum in Moab, which received a $212,640 CIB grant for the purchase and renovation of an existing museum. This privately owned museum is not part of the museum consortium.