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VMNH studies branch
Waynesboro is targeted

Sunday, August 25, 2013

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The Virginia Museum of Natural History is looking into establishing a branch museum in downtown Waynesboro to further economic revitalization efforts there and give the museum more prominence statewide.

Consultants think the Waynesboro branch would attract more visitors than the museum on Starling Avenue in Martinsville, largely because of a greater population in the branch’s intended service area.

However, the museum will be permanently based in Martinsville, emphasized Melissa Neff Gould, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees.

“This community gave birth to the museum” and it is firmly rooted here, said Gould, of Danville.

Richmond-based Chmura Economics & Analytics determined that starting a branch museum in Waynesboro would be financially feasible.

On Saturday, the trustee board voted unanimously to form a subcommittee to look into the idea. The subcommittee will include trustees, board members of the museum’s private foundation, Waynesboro officials and delegates from that city’s downtown development organization.

The museum had branches at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville until about a decade ago when they were closed as a result of state budget cuts.

With museum finances more stable, and a goal to make the museum more visible statewide, officials think this may be the time to start a new branch.

The museum and Waynesboro’s economic development office commissioned Chmura’s feasibility study. The total cost was about $50,000. The museum’s share was about $22,000, said Executive Director Joe Keiper.

Part of the cost was paid by the Virginia Tourism Corp., a report showed.

Chmura estimates the construction cost of a roughly 21,850-square-foot branch museum at $7.4 million. In contrast, the museum’s 89,127-square-foot Martinsville building, which opened in 2007, cost about $13 million. A state bond issue covered the cost.

Funding sources for a Waynesboro branch have not been determined, but officials said it may be possible to get both public and private money.

John Ross of Abingdon, a member of the museum foundation’s board, said state and federal officials with whom he has discussed the concept of a branch museum have been “really enthusiastic” about it.

Waynesboro was chosen as the site of a potential branch, a Chmura report states, “because of strong and enduring community support for ... an entity in the city’s downtown that would become an anchor (project) for economic revitalization by attracting tourists and providing a venue for university-level environmental research and education.”

The museum’s work pertains to nature, and Waynesboro is like a nature lover’s paradise, museum officials indicated. For example, the South River, a popular fly-fishing spot, runs through downtown, and the Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway are nearby, they pointed out.

The Waynesboro area has “very unique ecotourism” destinations, Keiper said.

Chmura estimates a Waynesboro branch would get about 65,600 visitors a year whereas the Martinsville museum gets about 30,000 visitors annually.

Although the Martinsville museum receives visitors from across Virginia and beyond, more than half of its visitors are from its home area, Chmura determined. Museum officials have voiced a goal of attracting more visitors from elsewhere.

Martinsville-Henry County has a combined population of 67,972, whereas the Waynesboro/Staunton/Augusta County area has a combined population of 119,705, the Chmura report shows.

A Waynesboro museum would be expected to also attract visitors from Harrisonburg, Lexington, Buena Vista and Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Rockbridge, Rockingham and Nelson counties, the report shows. It estimates the region’s total population at about 446,000.

Furthermore, the Waynesboro branch could attract motorists traveling on Interstates 64 and 81, the report indicates.

Gould said visitors at the branch who like what they see might travel to Martinsville to visit the main museum, thereby helping to boost the local economy.

The branch would need a yearly operating budget of about $500,000 and a full-time manager along with six part-time workers, Chmura’s report shows. Exhibit development, as well as accounting and other administrative duties, would be handled by employees in Martinsville.

The building would contain exhibit space, laboratories, classrooms, children’s program space and outdoor research space, according to the report.

Chmura estimates annual revenue for the Waynesboro museum during its first five years at $334,654 and expenses at $250,026, resulting in a net operating income of $84,628.

Projected visitation and revenue figures were based on the percentage of area residents who have visited the Martinsville museum and, in turn, how many Shenandoah Valley residents can be expected to visit the Waynesboro museum based on the local percentage, according to Keiper.

“We asked them (Chmura) to be as conservative as possible,” he said.

 

 
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