Costs to build and develop the interactive displays envisioned in the proposed National Museum of the U.S. Army may well exceed $400 million. The vast majority of that must be raised from non-governmental sources.
That was the message given to members of the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce Tuesday at their monthly First Tuesday Luncheon by Judson E. Bennett, Jr., director of the museum scheduled to be operative by 2009.
"That cost estimate is scary and the likelihood of raising that amount is not good," Bennett told the audience assembled at Pema's Restaurant on Route 1.
He assured them, "The museum will open. But we may have to build it out over time." Congress has committed to provide $90 million over five years. "But they will not provide any more," Bennett emphasized.
He also admitted that he has been "pushed" by some members of Congress to make the museum a paying enterprise. However, he noted, under Internal Revenue Service regulations governing non-profit educational enterprises, he is barred from charging admission.
"Some of the interactive entertainment activities within the museum can carry a charge. But not general admission," Bennett clarified in answer to a question from the audience. He also pointed out there are other revenue streams possible such as conferences, use of the site by organizations, etc.
AT THE PRESENT, there are five potential sites being considered for the museum. Four of those are along Route 1 in the immediate vicinity of Fort Belvoir. The fifth is the former Engineer Proving Grounds site.
When pressed as to when an actual site would be selected, Bennett stated, "First, the environmental impact study now underway by Fort Belvoir must be completed. That deadline is November 4. Then there are approximately three months for analysis and selection of the top two sites. That will be followed by a public comment period." His estimate for a selection date deadline was February 2005.
"Our preference is to pick one of the sites along the Route 1 corridor. Each enables us to build a fence and seal off the museum from the post. That will alleviate visitors from going through the security checks now imposed when entering the base," Bennett explained.
Since the official launch of the project last year with Activation Ceremonies at Fort Belvoir, a theme for the museum has been selected, Bennett announced. "We have chosen the theme "Service and Sacrifice." It best fits our aim to tell both soldier stories and family stories," he told the crowd.
"We want to make this museum visitor-interactive. Just putting things on walls and under glass won't get people to see and understand our story," he insisted.
"We are going to tell stories that cover the whole spectrum of the human experience," Bennett acknowledged. They have already hired professional actors to portray those who have played a part in the U.S. Army from its inception to present day, he revealed.
"This is not a museum about war. It is a museum about people," Bennett emphasized. "It will touch on every minority in our history because every minority we have in this nation has fought in just about every battle we have fought. Forty six percent of today's Army is composed of minorities."
ONE OF THE biggest challenges, according to Bennett is "how to get people to come to the museum." He said, "It's got to be good. It's got to be done in an immersive environment. We have to give a chronological history — to put things in perspective."
Bennett noted that he could retire, he has enough time in. But, "This is going to be a state-of-the-art facility and I want to be a part of that. I'm not interested in building a third rate museum."
One way of enticing visitors is to develop and market what Bennett has dubbed a "History Corridor Concept." In his view, this would bring together all the historical sites in Northern Virginia to create a joint marketing program to benefit everyone.
Although early cost estimates were projected from a low of $120 million to a high of $200 million, Bennett said, "This won't be nearly enough." He noted that other similar facilities have come in at an estimated $450 per square foot minimum.
During the Activation Ceremony last year, U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-8), announced the Defense Appropriations Bill included $2 million "to kick off the fundraising effort." At that time Moran noted, "This museum effort has been years in the making. Locating the museum here ... will contribute to the entire revitalization of the Route 1 corridor."
At the commencement of his presentation, Bennett recognized that not only Moran but also Mount Vernon Supervisor Gerald Hyland, Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman, U.S. Rep. Thomas M.
Davis (R-11) and both Virginia Senators, John W. Warner (R) and George Allen (R), had all played a role in locating the museum at Fort Belvoir.
As planned, the museum will include more than 100,000 square feet of gallery space, an auditorium, a possible IMAX theater, classrooms, and other services such as a gift shop and indoor and outdoor restaurants. It will house memorabilia from throughout the Army's history from the Revolutionary War through the present conflict.
A highlight inside the museum, according to Bennett, will be simulators that will allow visitors to actually participate in various activities. These will include driving a tank, building a bridge, and even parachuting from an airplane.
There will also be a large "quiet area" on the grounds, Bennett said. "People who come here will have participated in many of the battles depicted or have had loved ones involved. After they exit the museum we are providing a place where they can go and reflect if they wish."
As explained at the Activation Ceremony, the museum will be built by a partnership of the U.S. Army, the Army Historical Foundation, and the American people. The Army's Center of Military History expects to invest $95 million to design, staff, and operate the museum, according to officials.