Silversides Should Shine After Museum Expansion

September 21, 2007
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MUSKEGON — An expansion campaign at the Great Lakes Naval Memorial & Museum will help Muskegon’s No. 2 tourist attraction reach the full potential envisioned when the USS Silversides first docked in West Michigan two decades ago.

A new 20,000-square-foot facility is currently under construction at the site on the Muskegon Channel with the undersized museum and gift shop temporarily relocated to a 6,000-square-foot construction trailer. When the new facility opens to the public this spring, museum operators believe it has the opportunity to be one of the most unique tourist attractions in the state.

“It’s been a long time in the making,” museum President and CEO Robert Morin told the Business Journal during an interview aboard Silversides, the famous Gato-class submarine. “When we originally brought the Silversides here 19 years ago, we had a pretty exhaustive set of projections. We thought at the time we would reach our saturation point at about 65,000 a year, but we’ve never really had the facilities to reach that potential.”

As Morin begins the tour of the centerpiece of the museum — a decommissioned World War II submarine that sank 23 Japanese ships on 14 successful patrols and was the site of the famous galley-table appendectomy immortalized in the classic film “Destination Tokyo” — he takes time to wave at the mid-morning arrival of the Lake Express ferry as it crosses through the channel from Milwaukee.

“A lot of people see us here and come check us out,” he says. “We’ve been seeing a lot of Wisconsin license plates the past few years.”

To date, overall attendance is up about 5 percent over last year, which saw a total of 20,000 visitors. Gift shop sales and overnight guests are up by 2 percent. The majority of visitors are from outside of Muskegon County, and roughly 8,000 of those are overnight visitors to the Silversides or the museum’s other large attraction, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter McLane.

The overnight program, which allows youth groups and occasionally adults to spend the night on the 82-bed Silversides or the 39-bed McClane, draws scouts, church groups and other youth functions from Minnesota to Georgia. Naturally, 90 percent of these bookings are for the submarine’s quarters, where guests have the choice of sleeping in the crew’s or officers’ quarters, or the forward and aft torpedo rooms. Most of these trips also involve stops at the adjacent Lake Michigan beach, and many visit the nearby Muskegon State Park and Michigan’s Adventure Amusement Park.

In a given year, it is estimated that museum visitors contribute over $1.5 million to the Muskegon economy. After its current $2 million expansion is complete, the museum hopes to immediately double and eventually triple its attendance and revenue.

As of right now, the museum does not qualify for accreditation by the American Association of Museums. It does not have the space to provide long-proposed educational programs, to adequately serve other organizations that make use of facilities, or to even display most of the artifacts in its collection.

Built on the site of a former naval reserve center, the museum has long consisted of two temporary classrooms of the sort used as overflow structures at K-12 school buildings. One trailer is the museum’s administrative offices, the other a one-room exhibit hall and gift shop. When the Silversides was first relocated to Muskegon from Navy Pier in Chicago, it was originally docked downtown, but was soon moved to its current site. There has been little investment in the facility since that time. With the lead attractions outside the facility — including a multi-ton diving bell on the front lawn, anti-mine equipment, torpedoes and the two vessels — the museum itself has long been an afterthought.

“The facilities on the shore are inadequate,” said Mark Fazakerley, chairman of the building campaign and president of Eagle Alloy Inc. “It’s been serviceable for 20 years, but it certainly does not match the volume of people that come to see us or the number of people that the attraction could potentially draw.”

The new two-story facility will include a greatly improved and enlarged exhibit space, a naval research library, conference facilities, a theater and classrooms, an outdoor deck and pavilion, upgraded offices and additional lodging space.

“We certainly understand that the building today does not meet the mission of the organization,” said Fazakerley, a navy veteran who actually enlisted at the reserve center where the museum today stands. “You’ve got to have the right house to really develop it into what it can be. We have to do something to make this organization better and stronger before it starts to languish and go away. Doing something was not an option; we have to be fairly aggressive in building this museum for the future.”

On a related note, the board of trustees for the Muskegon Air Fair announced this month that it would permanently discontinue the event. The maritime museum arose from Morin’s involvement in the launching of the air fair in the 1980s.

Kathy Morin, an administrator with the museum and Robert Morin’s daughter in law, is leading the formation of an educational program with a group of volunteers from the community. Initially targeted at fourth through sixth grade, the program is an effort to involve West Michigan schools with the museum and to bring in more visitors for weekday activities.

The current space is not adequate for such activities.

Currently, the campaign has raised roughly $1.6 million of its $2 million goal. Fundraising activities are ongoing, and naming opportunities are available. Naming rights for the museum building itself are a suggested $600,000 donation; other opportunities range from named bricks ($100) to torpedoes ($15,000 each) and the memorial garden ($250,000).

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