A local battle is brewing over the future of one of Nebraska’s most visible attractions, the Great Platte River Road Archway, which spans I-80 near Kearney. The question? In the wake of bankruptcy, should taxpayers pay to keep the struggling museum open?
Dark clouds have hung over the Great Platte River Road Archway museum for years, as the $60 million museum has been plagued by financial problems somewhat created by greatly inflated attendance expectations. A couple weeks ago there was a break in the storm, when a judge ruled in favor of a bankruptcy plan that reduces the museum’s debt to bondholders and vendors from $20 million to $100,000. Arch supporters view this as a chance to start over.
“We’re in a critical time right now of, you know, life or death in keeping this place open,” said Joel Johnson, a retired surgeon and former state senator who now chairs the Great Platte River Road Archway Foundation. “Now how can we keep the doors open and keep this place functioning as we look to the future of finding ways to sustain this, with either people making contributions, groups doing it, or foundations, or whatever that we need to approach.”
Part of this mix would mean breaking a promise. When the museum was built a decade ago, it was built with a guarantee it would pay for itself, without any taxpayer support. Johnson said the Foundation intends to ask the City of Kearney and Buffalo County for help, likely $200,000 a year from each for the next three years. Johnson said few museums exist without support of this type.
“With the history around the state of Nebraska, where counties or cities all over the state of Nebraska do support local museums, we thought that was the reasonable place to look,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that funding, coupled with current attendance of about 50 thousand visitors a year, will keep the museum running while it works to build a long-term business plan.
“I guess what we’re saying is, city and county, give us enough time to feel our way where we’re going,” Johnson added.
In their words: using tax dollars to support the Great Platte River Road Archway museum?
Randy Buschkoetter, Kearney City Council: “There are a lot of things to weigh here, but I’m leaning toward the direction of thinking that it’s very difficult to use money for that purpose because for one, that means we’re not using money for other purposes that I think are probably a little more community-based. I just am afraid that even if you throw some money at it, it won’t be enough. Once you do it for a few years, it’d be very difficult actually for them to wean themselves off of the money that the government entities will be throwing their direction. This is a tough decision, because I don’t want it to fail.”
Jonathan Nikkila, Kearney City Council: “I think we need to be very deliberative and careful before we put funds into cultural facilities. I think there is an accepted government role in funding things that don’t make money, things like libraries and other facilities. But I also don’t want to be the first recourse when folks need additional revenues for those kind of facilities. There’s a lot of divergent opinions in town about it. I think it’s definitely become a landmark for Kearney. Other people are just a little frustrated that they’re soliciting taxpayers to cover the expense when, it wasn’t an initiative brought to Kearney by Kearney-ites.”
Buss Biehl, Buffalo County Board: “I feel that if county’s going to be involved it needs to be done by a vote of the people. My district, the contacts I have, are not favorable for putting tax money into it. They just don’t feel that’s the obligation of the county to make that project work. I don’t think it’s up to the Board either to figure out how to make it work. I do feel it’s a good structure, a first-class structure. But there’s got to be a way to support it other than feeding it from tax base in Buffalo County.”
Sherry Morrow, Buffalo County Board: “I think probably everybody is kind of waiting to see actually what the proposal is and what comes out before they respond. I’d have to look at what the details are, what’s the business plan that goes with it, what’s the long term plan to sustain it so that isn’t a forever commitment. I’d want to know that before we did anything with it.”
Dennis Reitter, Buffalo County Board: “Most of the people out here, they really don’t want to pay taxes for it. They feel they’ve got enough taxes and it’s not something they want to support that way. I don’t think any of them want it to disappear either. My position on it is I am not in favor of any money going to the arch unless there’s a vote of the people. If there’s a vote and the people say yes, it’s wonderful. If they so no, well that’s the way it goes.”
“I’m leaning toward the direction of thinking that it’s very difficult to use money for that purpose, because for one, that means we’re not using money for other purposes,” said city council member Randy Buschkoetter.
Buschkoetter said, for example, $400,000 would go a long ways toward building a skate park the city has been talking about for years. Buffalo County Board members Buss Biehl and Dennis Reitter would both like to see taxpayers have a chance to vote on the issue and they’ve heard concerns from constituents.
“I feel that if county’s gonna be involved it needs to be done by a vote of the people,” Biehl said. “My district, the contacts that I have, are not favorable for putting tax money into it.”
“Most of the people out here, they really don’t want to pay taxes for it,” Reitter added. “They feel they’ve got enough taxes and it’s not something they want to support that way. I don’t think any of them want it to disappear either.”
“I think there is an accepted government role in funding things that don’t make money, things like libraries and other facilities,” city council member Jonathan Nikkila said. “But I also don’t want to be the first recourse when folks need additional revenues for those kind of facilities.
Nikkila adds some people in Kearney feel frustrated. “This is a project that they didn’t ask for, and certainly didn’t complain because at the time it was being funded by private dollars,” Nikkila said. “But they just feel like they’ve been put in an awkward position as taxpayers."
Some city council and county board members are torn because they believe the museum is a quality facility that’s become something of a landmark for the area, and they’ll reserve final judgment until they see formal proposals.
“I’d have to look at what the details are, what’s the business plan that goes with it, what’s the long term plan to sustain it so that isn’t a forever commitment,” said County Board member Sherry Morrow.
Johnson said in the coming weeks there will be more discussion, a Department of Roads-mandated inspection of the Archway structure and then a formal proposal to the two government bodies. Right now the museum is running on a bare bones budget. Some employees have been asked to resign and the interim director is working for no pay. And what happens if the Buffalo County Board and Kearney City Council vote against funding?
“I guess what we’d have to do is go to the public and ask for a lot of help, and a lot of help in a hurry,” Johnson said. “The tourist season now is pretty much ending, and so for the next six months the income of the Archway goes way down.”
But there’s another little ray of sunshine for the Arch. Johnson said attendance is up 12 percent since a long-awaited Interstate exit closer to the museum opened a month ago. More travelers like Bob Kaufmann of Illinois are stopping.
“I heard about this from friends that lived in Iowa,” Kaufmann commented while walking through the museum with his wife. “I’ve been under it once or twice but never stopped, but glad I have today.”
In the next few months local politicians, and maybe voters, may have a lot to do with whether one of the state’s most recognizable attractions will be available for other travelers.