More than five years after ground was broken on the site between the western banks of the Mobile River and Water Street, many of the exhibits are in place and ready for display at GulfQuest National Maritime Museum.
But with exhibit construction on the second and fourth floors still needed and buildout of the center’s gift shop remaining, Executive Director Tony Zodrow still won’t confirm an opening date for the facility that was highly anticipated before community patience started to grow thin.
“We have 16 contractors working on exhibits,” he said. “In the next couple of months we’ll get to a point of confidence with contractor timelines. As far as the opening date, we’re going to name it once and get it right.”
Zodrow called the nonprofit GulfQuest organization an “easy punching bag” when it comes to delays, but he said construction of the publicly funded building took more five years. He called it a “very challenging process.”
“We didn’t have anything to do with building construction,” he said. “We came in July to install exhibits. We’re 60 percent through exhibits with 40 percent left to go.”
Last year, Zodrow estimated the installation of exhibits would occur within six to eight months of occupancy. With a certificate of occupancy issued last July, that estimate would’ve put the finishing date for installation in February or March, but that’s not the case.
The interactive nature of the museum’s exhibits was one reason Zodrow gave for the length of time it has taken to install them.
He used the museum’s “Pelican Girls” exhibit as an example of the sophistication needed for an interactive exhibit. The Pelican Girls were a group of French ladies sent to Mobile to marry settlers.
The exhibit, which is made to look like a bedroom, tells their stories in several interactive ways. For instance, guests can open a jewelry box and get one story displayed on a screen that’s made to look like a mirror. The exhibit will also employ a fog machine, which has yet to be installed, Zodrow said.
For that one exhibit, Zodrow said, a script had to be written, actresses had to be hired and there had to be a program designed to coordinate lights, fog and automation.
“It would’ve been easy for us to just put up some artifacts, but this makes it come to life,” he said. “There’s a very intense installation process.”
Funding and budget
A lot has been made of the more than $42 million the city contributed toward the construction of GulfQuest, but the number is not accurate, Zodrow said.
The $42.6 million figure breaks down to $28 million in taxpayer money through two bond issues and $14.6 million in federal funding — a portion of which came from the installation of a high-speed ferry terminal.
On the building, the numbers break down to about 66 percent in local funding and 34 percent in federal funding.
GulfQuest’s nonprofit organization was responsible for acquiring $19.6 million in federal funding and donations, he said. As part of those funds, the museum also budgeted $922,388 for marketing related to the museum’s launch and $3.1 million in operating expenses.
Funding for exhibits, infrastructure and operations is buoyed by about $10.9 million in private donations from individuals and companies, Zodrow said. A public fundraising campaign is also upcoming, he said, but the museum has yet to set a goal for those efforts.
Another $4.6 million, or 25 percent, in operating and infrastructure funding comes from federal sources and $2.9 million, or 16 percent, comes from “New Market Tax Credits.”
The total project cost is listed at $62.3 million, which is higher than the roughly $52 million originally estimated.
Zodrow said if the project costs were lower at one point that’s only because they were estimates.
The $28 million the city spent on bond issues makes up 46 percent of the total project cost. Federal funding makes up 32 percent, private donations make up 18 percent and the tax credits make up 4 percent.
Attendance and economic impact
A marketing study, updated in 2009, estimates that GulfQuest will see roughly 300,000 visitors annually, Zodrow noted.
“Firms give extremely conservative numbers because you’ll base everything on that number,” he said.
The 300,000-visitor plateau can also be reached in Mobile based on numbers provided by the Alabama Tourism Department.
A statement posted on the department’s website dated Feb. 3 listed the U.S.S. Alabama and Battleship Memorial Park among the state’s top attractions, with 381,192 visitors in 2014. The park was the only Mobile-area attraction listed in the top 10 for the state. The top attraction was the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, which hosted 626,311 visitors in 2014.
Zodrow said GulfQuest is poised for success because of its uniqueness in the area and its size.
“It’s a regional museum,” he said. “Nowhere else can you come and explore the Gulf.”
Of the 300,000 visitors expected, 50,000 to 60,000 will come from school groups, Zodrow said. It’s important then that the museum has classrooms and a school lunch room, which will be used by school groups on field trips. Zodrow said it will be an option for school groups on trips to get a lesson from one of the museum’s volunteer teachers.
A 2009 study prepared by Dr. Semoon Chang at the University of South Alabama projected the museum would have an economic impact of $19.2 million and provide $650,000 in tax revenue.
Chang estimated three-quarters of out-of-town visitors would stay a minimum of two nights in area hotel rooms.
Admission to the museum ranges from $18 for adults to $14 for kids. Groups get in for $14 each for adults and $10 for kids. Students will get in for $8 and seniors, college students and active military will pay $16 for individual rates and $12 for groups. Children ages 5 and under get in for free.
“We looked the average rates for Mobile museums and attractions,” Zodrow said. “We priced it at a level comparable, but also at what would be a good value. We didn’t want to overprice it because when you do that, it makes it unaffordable for some people.”
He said the final ticket prices came after “careful study on our part and several adjustments.”
The Mobile History Museum has free admission and the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center’s admission is set at $16 for adults for admission to the exhibits and the Imax theater. The admission is $13.50 for children, $15 for youth ages 13 to 18 and seniors.
Mobile Museum of Art charges $10 for adults, students are $6, seniors are $8, children under 6 and active military get in for free. Battleship Memorial Park charges $15 for adults, $6 for children, $13 for seniors, children 5 and under and active military members get in for free.
Based upon those admission prices, if GulfQuest saw 60,000 paying students annually, that would generate $480,000 in revenue. If the remaining 240,000 projected visitors all paid the full adult price of $18 apiece, that would generate $4.32 million, for a total of $4.8 million in attendance revenue. That would place GulfQuest’s economic impact at four times its revenue, according to projections. The economic statement also places GulfQuest’s annual budget at $3.8 million.
The lobby of the 90,000-square-foot building is itself an exhibit. The front doors of the facility open to a rotunda with an embedded globe representing the Gulf’s relationship with world trade. When complete, the rotunda will also be draped with flags from the 90 to 100 nations that come through the port, Zodrow said.
The floor of the lobby is a compass and the first exhibit, entitled “America’s Sea,” highlights various aspects of the Gulf of Mexico through an interactive light-up display. The areas covered include exploration, geography of the Gulf, combat, environmental as well as trade and tourism.
That first, free exhibit represents a $225,000 investment, Zodrow said.
Off the lobby is the museum’s cafe or “galley” and the unfinished gift shop, which will be decorated to resemble a sunken Spanish ship.
The cafe will be open to anyone free of admission and gives diners a one-of-a-kind view of the port and access to an automated shipping activity tracker, Zodrow said.
“If you’re eating and a big cargo ship comes by you can get the information on it,” he said. “We’re trying to make every aspect of GulfQuest educational.”
The first paid exhibit is called “Shores of the Gulf” and features artifacts from different parts of the Gulf Coast, including Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Cuba and Mexico.
The exhibit includes an 80-seat, three-screen, orientation theater that shows a promotional video.
The next stop is the biggest exhibit in the building, a replica container ship, which houses several other exhibits. The ship commemorates the concept of “containerization,” an idea pioneered by Malcom McLean, owner of Mobile’s Waterman Steamship Corporation. The bottom floor of the exhibit will be filled with 22 inches of water to make it look like the ship is floating on the Mobile River.
“It’ll look like the water is at the same level as the river,” Zodrow said.
In all there is about 36,000 square feet of exhibit space.
The first gallery is called “Maritime Matters,” where visitors can participate in everything from learning how to read a nautical chart and the basics of a steam engine to testing out different angles of sail.
“It’s helpful because our exhibits build upon one another,” he said.
The first-level gallery space will also be used for traveling exhibits. Zodrow said the current exhibits could be moved out and stored, making way for up to 6,000 square feet for a traveling exhibit. He said a traveling Titanic exhibit is slated for the museum’s second year.
On the fifth floor sits one of the museum’s most expensive exhibits, a ship pilot simulator called Take the Helm. The simulator allows visitors the experience of piloting a ship through the port of Mobile, down the Tombigbee River or over to Dauphin Island, with five different scenarios.
Zodrow said the exhibit will be manned with the help of volunteers and as many as 25 visitors will enter the simulator room at one time and two visitors will be chosen as pilots for each show.
The fifth floor also serves as an observation deck with views of the port.
The museum’s fourth floor will consist of a series of exhibits on Austal shipbuilding and nearby off-shore platforms, Zodrow said.
The third floor is made to look like a sailboat hull and will house the museum’s “Curiosity Cabinet.” The darkened room will be home to several history exhibits, including a replica glass-bottom boat that recounts the history of the sunken “El Cazador,” which turned out to be a pivotal event in the U.S. obtaining the Louisiana territory. The third floor gallery also houses the exhibit on the aforementioned “Pelican Girls” and an exhibit on the mystery of the Hunley, a Confederate submarine built in Mobile.
The third floor will also be home to a theater dedicated to shipbuilding and its impact in a World War II victory.
There is a lot left to do on the museum’s second floor, which will house a simulator that will let visitors explore different areas of the bottom of the Gulf, one square-mile at a time. The second-floor will also contain an aquarium with a simulated oyster reef and an open water tank that will allow visitors to pilot sailboats, Zodrow said, once those exhibits are completed. A hurricane simulator will also be part of the museum’s activities.
Also on the second floor is the only part of the museum dedicated to young children, ages 2 to 8, where they can put on maritime gear and study different careers within the industry.
Zodrow believes the museum and all of its exhibits will help create a larger visitor base in Mobile.
“A rising tide raises all boats,” Zodrow said. “I think it’s that. All (local) museums will benefit.”