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Air Force Museum to spread its wings with $40M expansion

Advocates hope new wing opening will help bring visitors to Dayton area beyond museum.

A years-in-the-making $40.8 million expansion at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force will mark a milestone advocates hope will be a “springboard” to draw more visitors beyond the new addition to aviation heritage attractions throughout the Dayton region.

When the privately funded 224,000-square-foot hangar opens Wednesday, it will bring the vast majority of more than one million tourists who come to the museum in a typical year closer than they have been in years to some of the most iconic planes in American history.

The new building will house the largest collection of U.S. presidential and exotic research aircraft in the world under one roof, a museum spokesman says.

‘Don’t exist anywhere’

“It is a world-class facility,” said Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the National Aviation Heritage Alliance. “We have aircraft there that don’t exist anywhere in the world.”

Perhaps the most famous, the Boeing 707 with the presidential seal that carried President John F. Kennedy’s body home after his assassination in Dallas in 1963 – and was among the very last to move into the building in April – will be one of the centerpieces expected to draw tourists around the nation.

The iconic jet that flew eight presidents was among dozens of aircraft in the presidential and research and development galleries in an old hangar behind the fence at Wright-Patterson. Most visitors had to sign up on a first-come, first-serve list to grab a seat on a bus tour to see the historic and exotic experimental planes.

With the new hangar, that will end.

At an invitation-only ceremony Tuesday, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, the highest-ranking civilian leader, will mark the opening of the expansion just as she did for the groundbreaking in June 2014.

A coalition of groups known as the Grand Opening Regional Working Group will spend $170,000 on a marketing campaign to target beyond the typical crowds that come to the museum.

The money will be spent in mostly 16 regional newspaper markets, electronic billboards and digital advertising.

The hope is visitors will explore Wright brothers and aviation heritage sites in the area after they tour the new hangar, organizers said.

“We’re using the museum as a springboard to tell the rest of the story of the region,” said C.D. Moore, chairman of the Regional Working Group and a retired Air Force lieutenant general.

Tourists interest in the hangar has brewed for years.

Jacquelyn Powell, president and CEO of the Dayton/Montgomery County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she’s fielded a “great deal of interest” and “a lot of questions” on the expansion as she has traveled to trade shows to promote the region.

“Outside of our own community, there are a lot of other people throughout the state, throughout the county, I think are also anticipating a wonderful new opportunity here to see things frankly that you can’t see anyplace else,” she said.

Area advocates hope David McCullough’s book, “The Wright Brothers” and Hollywood actor Tom Hanks’ upcoming HBO miniseries based on the book about the two Dayton airplane inventors will add momentum in the push to boost tourism.

“I think one of the biggest challenges that we’ve had is how do we get the visitors out of the museum to see the other places,” Sculimbrene said.

NAHA brought the Grand Opening Regional Working Group together to focus on marketing the opening of the fourth hangar.

In the future, the community will need to find a way to market the multi-million dollar attraction because the government-owned public museum that doesn’t charge an admission fee doesn’t have the budget to do it, he said.

If they build it, will they come?

The museum may get an initial surge of visitors. At a Riverside hotel across the street from the museum, all rooms were booked for Tuesday, Friday and Saturday and the hotel was close to selling out Monday as of late last week.

“I’m going to say a significant number of these are coming in for the museum,” said Wes Risen, a front desk manager at the Comfort Suites Wright-Patterson. “I’ve been getting some calls that I’ve had to turn down because we’re already filled up.”

Neither the museum nor tourism bureaus have projected how many more visitors the addition might attract, but it will likely take little effort to surpass last year’s attendance, which was the lowest in two decades.

The museum counted 859,780 visitors in 2015 compared to 1,146,087 the year prior.

The low numbers were only the second time in a decade less than 1 million visitors appeared, and the lowest attendance numbers since 1994 when 808,152 visitors were counted, figures showed.

The downturn left museum officials without a sure answer why the drop was so steep in 2015, but said some people might have stayed away until the fourth expansion opens, among possible reasons, officials have said.

The haven of aerospace history is the largest free attraction in Ohio, typically attracting about a million visitors a year since 1981. Fifty-three percent of visitors live outside Ohio and 6 percent arrive from other countries.

Estimates show the museum has about a $40 million economic impact each year.

Tourism is a key economic driver to the region. In 2013, Montgomery County tourism was tallied $1.7 billion in spending and employed 20,390 employees who earned a total of $445 million, according to a Total Economics study.

Over the same time in neighboring Greene County, tourism brought in $569.3 million and employed nearly 6,800 who earned total wages of $136.3 million. Tourism-related tax revenues brought in an estimated $219.3 million in Montgomery and $73.5 million in Greene counties, figures show.

A later opening date

The expansion will open far later than originally envisioned. Five years ago, for example, the museum targeted an opening date of 2014.

Sculimbrene attributed the difficulty to fund raising in the aftermath of the 2008-09 economic recession and NASA snubbing the Air Force museum in 2011 for one of three retired shuttle orbiters and a test flight model that never flew in space.

The Air Force Museum Foundation, Inc., which raised the money to pay for the new building, had set a $46 million goal. Corporate and individual donations and sales at the museum covered the $40.8 million price tag for the new hangar, said Michael P. Imhoff, foundation executive director.

Now that the hangar is built, the foundation will raise money to pay for additional learning nodes in the future, he said. The expansion has three of the themed-classrooms to teach history and science-related lessons in the Presidential, Space, and Global Reach galleries.

Phil Parker, president and CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, said the museum addition could boost the area’s relationship with the Air Force and the military.

“If that museum helps us do that, that’s just one more way of strengthening the relationship with the military people in our town … because this is hallowed ground,” he said, referring to Huffman Prairie Flying Field near the museum where Orville and Wilbur Wright developed the first practical airplane in 1905.

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