One year into LeMay-America's Car Museum's existence as part of the Tacoma cityscape, and it almost feels like it's been here the entire time.
Granted, part of that may be because of the long struggle toward finally getting the museum built and opened; simply, conceded David Madeira, ACM's president and CEO, “sometimes it feels like we had been talking about that for forever.”
But if there's anything that Madeira is focused on, it's keeping the museum looking forward. It's an ironic sentiment for the head of a museum that showcases autos from the past, but there's a lesson in that. Just as there's much to learn from the classic machines on display at ACM, Madeira said that the hard work it took to get the museum this far is a foundation for its future.
“(This anniversary) is huge, because few people thought we could ever get it done,” Madeira said. “I think that to come in during, essentially, the recession and try to raise $65 million and construct a building when everything was tough — and tough in this region — was pretty spectacular. And then you have to suddenly turn and make it happen. You have all this focus on making money and promotion, and then, all of a sudden, it happens, and now you have to make it real.
“Everybody thinks, 'Oh, you're here now, the hard part's over.' But it's not. You're suddenly changing and becoming an operating organization and a business organization. To be a year in, be operating and operating well, and to be getting attention from around the world, getting visitors from 50 states and 26 countries — I think it's pretty exciting.”
To be sure, there has been a learning curve for the museum over the last year, although it has yielded some pleasant surprises, Madeira said.
“Last year, we had no idea what to expect, because we hadn't been open. So we said we were going to close on Monday and Tuesday, like all the other museums do, because we said, 'OK, attendance is going to fall.' Well, that first Monday, there were 600 people wanting in. And we let them in. We had to adjust. Within a week, we adjusted and went to seven days a week.
“Mid-January and February, (attendance) gets really low. We figure we better have 150 people come in on a Monday. … That's the number we have to have to open seven days, and we've made that.”
The challenge for ACM now is a different, perhaps more difficult one, according to Madeira. There's an old saying within the museum industry, he said, that the trick to success is getting people to come for a return visit, and another, and another.
“It's easy to get people to come once, but you have to operate really well to get people to want to come back,” Madeira said. “We had to move fast and learn how to do that. I walk around anecdotally and nobody knows who I am, I see people and I ask them, 'Did you have a good time?'
“The response I get uniformly is, 'Yeah, this is great, I'm coming back.' And that's good.”
That's music to the ears of Madeira, who saw a lot of promise in building tourism in Washington's third largest city when he first arrived.
“I came to Tacoma partially in 2002 to do this project, but one of the reasons I did was seeing the raw potential of Tacoma and that Tacoma was reinvigorating itself around the waterfront. Particularly with the museums, they were on track at the time and I thought that the city is focusing on the tourism correctly. There's a lot that can happen here.
“Then it tanked. It really got tough and it's just now getting better. But if you look at it, it's a small community. It's not the size of a Boston or a New York or a Seattle, so you've got to work harder. But the raw potential is great, and you have a chance to make a big impact. And we have — I think we're the biggest tourism draw in the South Sound, I would guess.”
Indeed, just over Memorial Day weekend, ACM saw over 3,000 visitors walk into its doors. And that's without any special event promotion, Madeira was quick to point out.
“When I walk around here, it feels good,” he said. “We built a building, but look what this thing's doing on a daily basis. It makes me walk around with a big smile on my face. I smile a lot.”
Another reason for Madeira to smile: 72 percent of ACM visitors are from outside of Pierce County.
“We told Tacoma when we were trying to get things done: We're going to have an impact on this city,” he said. “And we are having an impact on this city. You ask Pacific Grill. You ask El Gaucho. You ask the Hotel Murano. They've seen a difference. (There's) great satisfaction that we're having an impact on our city, because that was one of our main goals.”
Speaking of other businesses, Madeira brought up a crucial tenet of ACM's focus over the last year: Building relationships.
“It's fundamental that you become part of your community,” he said. “If you set aside any of those relationships in any kind of arrogant way, you're doomed. I think we all do much better when we do reach out and have a philosophy of, 'How can we help you?'”
Madeira cited ACM's relationship with the Museum of Glass, with which it has shared space for collaborative exhibits in the past. He also talked about cross-promotion with other local businesses — there's currently a 1949 Kuzma-Offy Midget Racer on loan from ACM at the Hotel Murano lobby, for example — and being proactive with a certain insurance industry giant (one that's also a presenting sponsor of ACM) that's soon to move in downtown.
“I'm not hanging out waiting for anything,” Madeira said. “Two weeks ago, I was at corporate headquarters in Bloomington, Ill., at State Farm with their marketing people. I was there to say, 'You're coming to town. … How can we help you?'
“I said, 'Let's help you celebrate when you come.' I don't know what we're going to do yet. They'll be here this weekend. We're going to talk about making a big deal (of State Farm's arrival). Maybe we'll get old cars out and have a parade and do something for them.
“And they immediately said, 'We want our 300 employees and more to do things with the museum, at the museum. Maybe we can work out some membership deals or whatever. So we'll be talking about how to take advantage of that to benefit a corporation which is investing in Tacoma.”
Madeira also hopes to collaborate with State Farm in promoting auto safety in Tacoma.
“We've already began to talk about, as we develop our education zone and our family zone that will be unfolding over the summer, how we can work with (State Farm) to have programs that will promote driver safety. That's right in the line of their business, so I think we're going to start doing some things there.”
As for the present, Madeira said that he's been happy with ACM's business in 2013 to date.
“I think we're doing pretty well,” he said. “The winter quarters are always going to be the slowest quarters, but now we'll start to rocket through the summer. … This weekend, we think, was the summer turn.”
From June 2012 to June 2013, Madeira forecast, attendance at the museum will hover around 250,000.
“That's good,” he said. “That's solid. It's the largest automotive museum attendance in the country, and that's without an education program and now, we're unveiling that.
“I think if we hit 250,000 this year, we ought to be at 300,000 next year. … Our goal is 400,000. We benchmark the Museum of Flight, and it's about 400,000 roughly. They've been there a long time, and they're situated close to the airport, close to Seattle. But our audience is bigger than the plane audience, so if they can do that, I think that kind of a target is very reasonable for us. Give us five years, and we should be there.”