It has certainly been perhaps the most scrutinized public project in Mobile’s recent history, and as its bones rose from the banks of the river and opening date after opening date was pushed back, criticism mounted. But at the end of the day, GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico turned out to be as magnificent as promised.
So why now — one year after it opened — are criticisms rising again?
The simple answer at this point is that the museum has horribly missed the high marks it set for itself attendance-wise, and also isn’t paying its bills. Those are the kinds of things that get tongues wagging.
The museum cost more than $60 million — including exhibits. The ship-shaped building itself ran more than $40 million, with taxpayers picking up $28 million of that. Mobilians who’ve seen more than their fair share of build-it-and-they-will-come projects were skeptical of this undertaking from the word go. And when director Tony Zodrow started tossing around attendance goals of more than 300,000, I personally thought he might be better off opening a cannabis museum.
Those high-as-the-sky projections turned out to be just that — if what I’m seeing in other local media is true. According to a WPMI report that went out last Friday, the museum had just 80,000 attendees during its first year.
You might wonder why I’m quoting WPMI’s story and not our own. I am too. You see, one of GulfQuest’s enduring issues so far has been the thin-skinned attitude of its leadership. They are all aboard for positive stories but lose it when anyone asks about pesky things like attendance and finances.
We’ve been asking for their attendance numbers for months, but they told us those wouldn’t be released until their Sept. 26 anniversary, so we politely waited. Last week, City Director of Finance Paul Wesch said in an open meeting that GulfQuest hasn’t been paying its utility bills to the city and now owes more than $400,000. It just happened to be a meeting where Lagniappe was the only media in attendance and we reported this news. Of course our reporter called and emailed GulfQuest for comment, but they wouldn’t respond.
They also dumped their attendance figures on a WPMI reporter, even though we’ve requested them for months. Spite? Who knows. It really doesn’t matter. Surely they couldn’t think trying to slip them out quietly on a Friday evening would keep us from reporting and people finding out.
There’s been a bunker mentality at GulfQuest for a long time and that doesn’t help anything. I get that they don’t like “negative” — aka “true” — stories about how the museum is doing, but it’s not like anyone is rooting for its failure. This publication was the first media in town to do a full feature on what the museum would have to offer. We’ve pointed out how good the restaurant is and I know I’ve personally written and mentioned on radio what a top-notch museum it is. They’ve gotten a lot of good coverage from everyone in the market.
But when it comes to letting the public — the public that put $28 million into the building — know what’s happening, Zodrow and company get twisted like a busted jib. (I’m going for a nautical analogy here. It was either that or “seagull in a propeller.”)
A few years ago in trying to pin Zodrow down to offer a number for the lowest amount of attendance the museum could draw without it becoming a burden on the city, he told me 200,000. Bringing in just 80,000 clearly leaves GulfQuest taking on water, which probably explains the situation with the city.
For whatever reason, the city has been paying GQ’s utilities with the expectation that they’d be paid back quarterly. According to Wesch, nary a check has been written in the first three quarters. If things stay they way they are, GulfQuest could be a close to $600,000 expense for the city this year.
I’m sure some people will say, “Turn off the power.” That might be the right answer if the taxpayers didn’t own most of the building. Letting it start falling apart is not a good answer. If GulfQuest can’t make it on its own steam, eventually the building could be repurposed. But it’s too soon to talk about the museum failing.
A lot of hopes appear to be pinned to the cruise ships’ return. Again, according to the WPMI report, GQ officials think they’ll get “20 to 25 percent” of the ships’ passengers each week. A quarter of the passengers going to GulfQuest sounds rather “optimistic,” but maybe they’ll tell WPMI next year how that worked out.
For the first year, the museum would have averaged about 220 people a day if it opened every day. We still have no idea how many of those were paying customers or discounted, etc. Maybe one day they’ll pick up the phone and let us all know that.
To hit 200,000 that number would have to swell to 548 a day, or a difference of almost 2,300 people a week. Most of the Carnival Cruise ships I looked up carry about 3,600 at max capacity. So even if they got a quarter of those people each week that would be only about 900 more and would leave GQ far below even the 200,000 level.
Listening to people talk about GulfQuest over the past year, one recurring theme has been the expense involved in taking the whole family. An adult ticket is $18. Two parents taking two teens would pay $68 just off the top. That’s a lot for an attraction without rides, sharks or pirates.
Maybe that’s the main issue. Or maybe the other is that “National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico” just doesn’t get the blood flowing. Expecting 300,000-plus people a year to be jacked up enough about shipping to load the kids in the car and drop half a day’s pay may be the basic issue, and that’s going to be a tough course to correct.
In any case, the folks at GulfQuest owe Mobilians total openness when it comes to the museum’s finances. The citizens didn’t have much choice when it came to being part owners of GulfQuest, but they have all the choice in the world as to whether they’ll support it or whether it will become the next cool vacant space to host weddings.