When the National Museum of the Great Lakes opens next spring, it could be the catalyst needed for the Marina District’s 127 acre development.
The $12.8 million museum, currently under renovation at its Maumee River front location next to the Toledo Maritime Center and the Col. James M. Schoonmaker Museum Ship, was brought to Toledo by the Great Lakes Historical Society.
“There are very few museums in the world that can actually legitimately claim to be an economic development asset of massive significance,” said historical society executive director Christopher H. Gillcrist. “I think we’re one small piece of the puzzle that can help this area redevelop and that’s what we hope to do.”
Paul LaMarre III, director of the Monroe (Mich.) port, added, “You can see it taking shape as a true destination. You see the Jet Express parked outside (during an open house Tuesday) — this is the type of development that is needed to draw a ferry service like the Jet Express, or others, to the location.
“It brings together multiple preservation assets, or attractions that will create something greater that will be something sustainable. So many preservation historical agencies struggle and struggle in today’s fast-paced technological society to create partnerships and create a larger attraction, which is extremely valuable,” LaMarre continued.
A feasibility study commissioned by the historical society and Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority found that between 41,000 and 60,000 visitors will visit the museum annually. At a combined admission and per visitor store purchase figure of $12.50 per person, 41,000 visitors would generate about $500,000 annually for its operations.
Total annual revenue, including membership, endowment and charitable giving, and grants are estimated at $1.225 million with expenses estimated at $1.075. That includes labor costs of $475,000, administrative costs of $100,000, plus advertising, programming, ship maintenance, occupancy, and cost of goods sold.
The National Museum plans to use original artifacts and images coordinated with both low-tech and high-tech interactive experiences to tell the story of the Great Lakes. The experience is to be both educational and entertaining.
“This is a long term dream to create a national museum of the Great Lakes,” Gillcrist said. “We can raise people’s understanding and appreciation of the important history of the Great Lakes. Having the space and the location to do it makes all the difference in the world.”
It is hoped that the vacationing public and school children will find experiences in the museum that “enrich their lives and elevate their appreciation for the important role” Great Lakes history has played in the North American continent’s development, a pamphlet states.
As part of its agreement, the historical society will manage the Schoonmaker museum ship, which was relocated from International Park in October 2012. Estimated cost to maintain the vessel is $50,000 annually.
LeMarre, the former executive director of the Schoonmaker and formerly in charge of Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority’s maritime affairs, calls the museum “the largest historic preservation project in Great Lakes history.” He remains part of the historical society’s vessel committee, which will have oversight of the Schoonmaker.
“This will be the Smithsonian of Great Lakes maritime culture,” LeMarre said. “It’s only fitting that it is in the port of Toledo, which is commonly referred to as the capital of the lower lakes, anyways. But, this project has come a long way and has overcome many hurdles to bring together many assets of maritime history and culture to present the total package to future visitors.
“From exploration and settlement, to the 1,000-foot lake freighters on the lakes today, it tells the story of a people that have been part of that industry for 100-plus years,” continued LaMarre.
The historical society over the past three years has raised 77 percent of the funds needed for moving the museum and renovating the building from public sources. If you count the value of the Toledo Maritime Center into the equation, the project is funded at 82 percent and Gillcrist says the retrofit of the building is about 85 percent complete and about five percent of the exhibits are in place. The rest of the exhibits should be installed by December 10.
The reasons for moving it from Vermilion to Toledo — cost effectiveness to a newly constructed building for museum exhibits, superior access to Interstate 280 and I-75, willingness on the part of the City of Toledo to relocate and restore the Schoonmaker, availability of additional land for development, and presence in a historic port setting.
“Toledo has a long history in the shipping business and to have this museum here is really great for us,” said Mary Dalby, owner of Harbor Light Cruise Lines, which has operated Sandpiper cruises for 20 years.
“It looks like it’s going to be a really fabulous facility,” Dalby continued. “Hopefully, it will bring people in from all over the country if not from all over the world. There are other Great Lakes museums around, but this one could be the best. And, having the Schoonmaker as a part of it is a real plus for it.”
Dalby knows from experience how tourism businesses can complement each other financially.
“I’ll tell you the truth — Cousino’s Navy Bistro, when he (former owner Tom Cousino) built that restaurant, people came down downtown and didn’t die. They were sure they were going to, but they went there. They saw the Sandpiper go by, and people would see the Navy Bistro, and they would say, ‘What is that? A Navy supply store?’ And, I’d say ‘No, it’s a restaurant.’ We fed off each other and I think that it helped both of us become a success.
“This facility, we’ll go by, and people will say, ‘What’s that?’ And, I’ll say, ‘That’s a museum,’ and at the museum they’ll say, ‘That’s the Sandpiper,’ and I think that will be good.”