In what has to be the perfect side note to the GulfQuest debacle, the folks from the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museums were in town last week going through the soon-to-be-shuttered maritime museum.
Upon hearing this I thought they must have come to add the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico as an exhibit in one of their odd museums. I mean, a maritime museum that was 20 years in the making, and took five years just to build, closing (at least temporarily) about two minutes after celebrating its first year in business is pretty — as the late, great Jack Palance would say — “Believe it or not!!”
Instead it seems they were here talking with city and museum leaders about some ways to possibly paddle out of the financial whirlpool known as GulfQuest. As things currently stand, GQ is Mobile’s answer to the Titanic and Hindenburg simultaneously smashing into a Ford Pinto filled with Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones.
And because previous mayors and GQ’s benefactors were so convinced it would instead be a smashing success, tens of millions in taxpayer money and federal grants were poured into its concrete walls, leaving the museum a financial albatross of epic proportions if it can’t be salvaged. The current mayor and council are left with few options other than to keep the museum moderately operational as they search for ways to “repurpose” the building.
It’s hard to imagine a slower motion, more obvious failure than GulfQuest. When media first started reporting on a big maritime museum being built along the riverfront, the general man-on-the-street reaction was, “Nobody wants to see that.”
Of course the consultants came in and told us otherwise, and GQ management bandied about seemingly ridiculous attendance goals that were only achievable if people could be gathered on the streets of downtown by teams of machine gun-toting GulfQuest employees and forced through the museum’s doors to learn more about containerized shipping. But any questioning of the 300,000 annual visitors projection was met with scorn and anger.
Somewhere the consultants are off having a big laugh. They’re probably in some smallish city in the Midwest convincing them a freight train museum will be the answer to their tourism dreams. Can we once and for all agree that projections from consultants ALWAYS tell people what they want to hear?
Certainly GQ’s cause was not helped by its five-year construction time. The billion-dollar AT&T Stadium — home of my white-hot 7-1 Dallas Cowboys — took less time to build. The Jones administration made things worse by releasing one wrong opening date after another, and by the time GQ’s doors opened a large part of the citizenry was already over it.
The sad part is GulfQuest is actually a really nice museum. It has a great restaurant and is the only place in town where you can have something to eat and watch the big ships go by on the river. But even if its funding wasn’t dried up it has little chance. As Mayor Sandy Stimpson has pointed out, GQ is educational, but not much fun. And it cost too much, which was another factor in it seeing only 80,000 people wander through its doors in the first year.
But GulfQuest was built too big to fail.
Somewhere along the line this idea of having a maritime museum in Mobile grew out of proportion to what might actually work. Former Mayor Mike Dow’s P.T. Barnum-like enthusiasm no doubt became mixed with the GulfQuest board’s desires for a truly spectacular homage to their industry. Visions of tourists streaming off cruise ships into GulfQuest as high-speed ferries packed with commuters whisked across the bay danced in their heads. A grand vision indeed.
Even the name sounds too grandiose. It’s hard to imagine being at the table when someone came up with GulfQuest: National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico. It trips off the tongue like the 63-letter German word for the law delegating the monitoring of beef labeling.
So millions of federal transportation funds got mixed up in this thing — you know, for the high-speed ferries and all — and now we’re stuck like a barge in bay mud. Shut GQ down and the city has to pay the feds back tens of millions in grant money and also risks losing more grant money coming down the pike. It can’t just be bulldozed into the river or magically turned into a casino.
The city has taken over GQ, cut staff to the bone and dictated that for the time being it will only be open for special occasions, private parties and days when the cruise ship is loading or unloading. In the meantime, GulfQuest is going to cost the taxpayers more than $2.8 million a year to sit there while someone figures out a way to keep the maritime museum component and bring something in with it that will make this all financially feasible. Thank God Carnival is coming back or we’d have two giant buildings right there on the landing to debt service each month.
Stimpson already made one smart decision when he rejected the GQ board of directors’ request for $1.8 million from the city to keep the doors open. He rightfully saw throwing that kind of money at the museum wouldn’t do anything to change its fortunes and that they’d be asking for more money next year.
This is no doubt a colossal embarrassment to many of those involved, former mayors and the city as a whole, and the finger pointing has already started. As the old saying goes, “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.” But the citizens shouldn’t be nailed financially for this museum’s failure for years and years to come.
Maybe squeezing a casino into the building alongside the maritime museum will ultimately be the answer. Or a J.C. Penney or nautically themed disco. Perhaps some of the shipping companies that pushed for GQ to be built can rent it as office space.
When you read the names of GulfQuest’s board of trustees you’ll see some of the biggest business success stories Mobile has produced. If they still believe in their museum, maybe it’s time to dig deep again and put more of their own money into fixing this problem. Creating a massive financial drain on the city just as its financial fortunes have started to improve is hardly a legacy any of them wants.
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