Grand Rapids Should Gain From Loss

December 29, 2006
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The 2004 funeral of President Ronald Reagan in many respects made the Southern California city of Simi Valley what it is today.

Roughly 118,000 people visited its then 13-year-old Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to pay their respects during his 36-hour repose there. Hotels and highways were packed with well-wishers and national media, and when he was laid to rest in a dramatic sunset ceremony on library grounds, the small city had remade itself in Reagan’s image, erasing the notoriety it earned as the site of the 1992 trial of four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King, which sparked massive riots in the neighboring city.

The Reagan library —  which had seen a 31 percent decrease in visitation in the first five months of the year — received more than 110,000 visitors in the months after the weeklong memorial. The following year, attendance more than doubled to 430,000, not including those who only visited the gravesite or the library’s free outdoor tour.

Last year, the city of 119,000 adopted as its official motto “Simi Valley: Home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.”

“Having the whole world watching the ceremony on television gave attention to the library that it might not normally have received,” said Melissa Giller, spokeswoman for the Reagan library and museum. “People learned about it, and when they were in Southern California, came here to visit the memorial site.”

A similar scenario is already unfolding in Grand Rapids. The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum has likely seen more visitors in the six days since President Ford’s death than it has in the preceding 12 months. With the arrival of Mr. Ford’s remains yesterday, Grand Rapids will take its place in history as host of only the fourth presidential funeral in more than 30 years.

“We have to be proud of the attention that’s going to be brought on our area as we celebrate his life,” said Janet Korn, marketing director for the Grand Rapids Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The fact that the two mirror each other is a wonderful opportunity. Ford’s presidency, and all of his life in public service, reflects that story we would like to tell about the area.”

The museum has been closed since the death was announced by the Ford family last Tuesday night, with the lobby and grounds open 24 hours a day for condolences. By Wednesday morning, hundreds of well-wishers had visited the museum, leaving flowers, candles and other remembrances. Throughout this period, the two westbound lanes of Pearl Street were closed from the museum grounds to Monroe Avenue to make room for television trucks.

Korn fielded a number of calls from incoming reporters on Wednesday.

“We do expect a lot of visitors to come from out of town,” she said, but she had not yet received word from her local contact, the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, as to how many visitors to expect. Whatever number, the service could not have fallen at a more opportune time for the city’s economy — the days immediately following the New Year holiday are among the slowest of the year for DeVos Place’s meeting and convention business and the local hospitality industry in general.

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce planned to provide information packets about the metro area to visitors staying at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, COO Laurie Forte said. She also said she and Chamber President Jeanne Englehart planned to staff a hospitality and information room there for guests invited to the Grand Rapids events.

Most of the state funeral events took place in Palm Desert, Calif., and in Washington, D.C., over the weekend and this morning. Mr. Ford’s remains will only be in Grand Rapids for a little over a day before Wednesday afternoon’s burial at the museum, and at press time it was uncertain as to how much the public would be able to participate.

The largest impact of the memorial service will likely be seen in the coming weeks and months. Despite a lengthy renovation from 2001 to 2003, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum had its worst attendance ever in 2004, with just 52,327 patrons visiting the museum in Grand Rapids or the library in Ann Arbor (the Ford facility is the only presidential museum with archives on a separate site), the worst of any of the 12 presidential museums operated by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Since its first year of operation, the Ford museum has suffered an 88 percent decrease in attendance, and a 50 percent decrease between 2002 and 2004. Much of the decrease can be attributed to a decline in funding for school field trips, which has hurt attendance at presidential museums nationwide.

“Whenever a president passes away, there is a renewed interest,” said James Kratsas, the museum’s deputy director and the highest-ranking Ford official in Grand Rapids. “I’m sure all the media attention right now will reawaken everybody’s memories of Gerald Ford. We just hope that the renewed interest results in them coming down here and seeing what the institution has to offer.”

Kratsas is uncertain whether the burial site will affect the museum’s stature as a tourist or historical attraction. It did greatly impact the Reagan library, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, is historically one of the best attended in the system. Nixon was the only president since World War I without a museum to accompany his presidential library, where he is buried.

Of the eight deceased presidents with NARA facilities, only John Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt are not interred on the sites. The burial grounds of both are historic monuments in their own rights: Arlington Cemetery in Virginia (Kennedy) and Roosevelt’s Springwood estate in New York.

“There are folks who have it as one of their goals to visit the gravesites of all past presidents,” said Gordon Olson, retired Grand Rapids city historian.    

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