You don’t have to talk to CEO David Madeira long before he reveals his conviction that LeMay America’s Car Museum is the best auto museum in the country.

Celebrating its three-year anniversary on June 2, ACM is at a point where its initial success can be measured. 

The verdict? The numbers are promising, if a tad underwhelming. The museum has drawn in under 200,000 visitors annually from all 50 states and 40 different countries.

While still impressive, those numbers are far under the museum’s perhaps optimistic projections of more than 400,000 visitors a year. That number was estimated to bring $34 million to Tacoma, as well as indirect economic impacts of $204 million. 

To the lower than projected attendance numbers, however, Madeira gives a verbal shrug.

“Generally, things are very good for a three-year-old place started from scratch,” he said. “I say, more than any other institution (in the city), we put Tacoma on the map in terms of literally bringing people from all over the world.”

For a car museum, Madeira continued, LeMay is doing well; he claims it draws about 80,000 more visitors than the comparably sized Petersen’s Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, which opened up in 1994. (That museum, by the way, is also on the record as hoping to draw more than 400,000 visitors a year.)

“Right now, we’re the largest drawing automotive museum in the country. I fully expect when we’re mature that we can approach the numbers the Museum of Flight has had,” Madeira said.

That museum, located in Tukwila on Boeing Field, pulls in 500,000 visitors a year.

Part of the puzzle is to grow the education program. Some useums receive up to half its annual attendance from school visits. Last year, when LeMay’s educational program started, the museum drew just 30,000 kids. This year, the program is expected to exceed 50,000 kids, and within a couple of years, that number should surpass 100,000, Madeira said.

Even if tickets are offered at a discount, the reasoning for school visits is fairly simple: a field trip can jump-start a person’s lifelong interest in a subject at an early age.

“One (reason) is simply to show interest in the automobile at an age when there’s so many different things for kids to pay attention to, now that the attention of the automobile isn’t as obvious as it once was. We want classic vehicles maintained and preserved as part of America’s history. These old cars, which are arguably the most important cultural icon of the 20th century, had the most impact on our lives.”

The museum is also continuing to grow its out-of-state appeal. In addition to participating in auto show events, the museum is expanding its Club Auto membership, which currently has facilities in Tacoma, Kirkland and Colorado, as well as planned locations on the East Coast. The membership allows access to a premier collector car storage and clubhouse facility, and lets like-minded enthusiasts to meet and socialize. Or, in other words, it gives car collectors a chance to show off their cars.

“In the next few years, with this network of clubhouses, people have a way to relate to us no matter where they live in this country,” he said. “You probably know of some guys who have an old car, but it’s just stuck in their garage or storage unit. Now they can come here, take it for joy rides, weekend trips, whatever. We’re creating a network that helps support the enthusiast community.”

The idea is that LeMay-ACM is not just a regional attraction, Madeira said.

“My goal there is to really expand the presence of America’s Car Museum literally across America,” he said.

As the museum works on its visitation numbers, though, Madeira said LeMay has been very successful in one crucial area: money.

“Numbers are meaningless in that they don’t hit the bottom line that hard,” he said.

Today, LeMay’s has over 70 corporate sponsors, with four of those giving over $100,000 a year. State Farm Insurance has given a total of $3 million, Haggerty’s is approaching $3 million, and AAA has given $2 million, Madeira said. The rest have given an average of over $20,000 a year.

“For this three-year-old museum to have 70 corporate sponsors is a signal of how much national attention we’ve received,” he said.

In addition, the car museum generates revenue by renting itself out as a venue and providing parking for concerts and other events at the Tacoma Dome. Parking alone can bring in $3,000 to $4,000 a day during the month of July. 

While there is still work to be done, Madeira is proud of what has been accomplished so far. He remarked that the LeMay museum has clearly captured the imagination in a way that few other automobile museums can.

“There’s really nothing like it anywhere,” he said. “(Normally), you go into a place that’s a rectangular building and cars are lined up chronologically, and they all belong to the owner of the collection. You might go again when your cousin comes into town, or take your dad on Father’s Day. But then, you never need to go again.”

He continued, “When we designed this place, we knew that model of car museum doesn’t work, because people don’t come again. The key (to success), other than endowment and corporate sponsorships, is return visitation and people coming and wanting to belong.”