The uncertain future of “The Arch”

The Great Platte River Road Archway museum. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
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September 3, 2013 - 6:30am

The future of “The Arch” - a struggling Nebraska museum spanning Interstate 80 near Kearney - is in the hands of a bankruptcy judge. A ruling on the plan to save the business is expected this month.


The ribbon cutting ceremony for the new I-80 interchange near Kearney and the Great Platte River Road Archway. (all photos by Mike Tobias, NET News).

 

Kearney Mayor Stan Clouse speaks at the ceremony.

 

Archway officials hope the new I-80 exit will boost attendance.

 

Archway worker Christine Makowski sells a ticket to the museum.

 

Attendance has declined since the Archway museum opened in 2000.

Christine Makowski works part-time at the Great Platte River Road Archway museum. She’s been selling tickets and doing other jobs at the museum since 2000, the year it opened.

“The first year that we opened was a huge staff, and of course a lot of people,” said Makowski, a retired teacher who lives in Kearney. “But you know, a lot of things haven’t changed. We have a dedicated staff that really enjoys working here, and the people who go through here are still the same. They’re so taken by the story that’s told.”

The problem is there haven’t been enough visitors interested in the museum and it’s story of 150 years of westward migration through Nebraska.

Developers made lofty promises when the $60 million museum was built over Interstate 80 near Kearney. They predicted 600,000 visitors the first year, with attendance growing to one million annually. That never happened. Attendance peaked at about 250,000 the second year (2001), declining to less than 50,000 last year. Now the museum is in trouble, $20 million in debt and hoping bankruptcy is the first step on the road to recovery. The foundation that runs the Archway submitted a bankruptcy plan this summer and a ruling from a federal bankruptcy judge is expected this month.

“Most definitely there’s a future for the arch,” Kearney Mayor Stan Clouse said. But Clouse, who is also a former member of the Archway Foundation board, added that is only if the court approves the bankruptcy plan. Bankruptcy would allow the archway to reorganize its debt, but Clouse said that’s just the first step.

“The plan is they would come to the city and the county and ask for $200,000 for a two or three year period,” Clouse added. “With that, we can do some things that have been deferred, maintenance. We can also use different county and city resources to help with the facility. But everything will change once that takes place. The governorship of the Arch will have to change because now you’re using public dollars.”

Use of public funds to bail out the arch will be controversial, especially since developers initially said the museum would be built and run without the use of tax dollars. The Kearney City Council and Buffalo County Board would each have to vote on this, and there’s likely to be significant opposition in each group. In July, County Board member Francis "Buss" Biehl told the Omaha World-Herald he had already decided to vote against this, saying he “represents a district almost 100 percent opposed to putting tax money directly into that thing.”

Clouse believes other options are limited. “When you travel around the country or when you look at the tourism documents, everybody associates the Arch with Kearney,” Clouse said. “So quite frankly, it’s really a black mark on our community and our area if something would happen to it. This is what we tell citizens: nobody asked for this, like it or not it’s here, it’s on the front door to our community and we need to make sure that our front door looks appropriate and is managed appropriately.”

Last week Clouse led a string of dignitaries, including Gov. Dave Heineman, celebrating some good news for Kearney. It was a ceremony marking the opening of the Cherry Avenue exit, the second I-80 interchange for the city.

“This will change the face of our community,” said Jon Abegglen, chair of the Cherry Avenue Task Force. “Improve access, traffic flows and safety for people travelling in, through and around Kearney.”

The ribbon cutting event was held near the interstate and in the shadow of the Archway, although speakers seemed to avoid mentioning the museum and when they did were quick to point out the interchange was planned before the arch was built. It is expected to help museum attendance, though. Previously the nearest exit for westbound travelers was two miles past the Arch. The nearest exit for eastbound travelers was about five miles past the Arch.

“I don’t think that we’re going to see any huge bulge from this,” said Leonard Skov, the Archway’s interim executive director and a longtime member of its board. “It’s going to be a sort of incremental, but we think that there’s no question it’s going to be helpful to the Arch.”

Skov believes the Archway needs to increase business by 35 to 40 percent, which could also provide much needed funds for maintenance and improvements. Clouse believes the best case scenario is the Archway becomes a break-even operation, similar to city-run pools and parks.

But again, this all hinges on approval of the bankruptcy plan. What happens if the plan is rejected is a multi-million dollar question without a clear answer. Using the Arch for another purpose doesn’t appear to be an option because of the terms of its lease agreement with the Nebraska Department of Roads, and Clouse said the 1500 ton building’s salvage value is less than what it would cost to tear it down.

“That will have to be determined by the judicial system and the legal reviews to see who really is responsible, who had the overwhelming burden of taking the next action up to and including tearing it down,” Clouse said.

Much of this is oblivious to Great Platte River Road Archway visitors. They don’t know that in many ways, the museum today and westward travelers 150 years ago have something in common: an uncertain road ahead.

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