Cincinnati’s Freedom Center Struggles as Attendance Falls

Sat July 26, 2008 - Midwest Edition
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CINCINNATI (AP) Attendance is dwindling at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which opened on the city’s riverfront amid celebrities and high hopes four years ago.

The museum, dedicated to the loose network of safe houses and escape routes that slaves followed northward to freedom, has endured financial problems that have angered critics who oppose public funding for the museum. Despite the fact it is expected to be a showcase at July’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention, it has struggled to gain widespread public acceptance.

“They promised many, many years ago that they would not continue to seek taxpayer money,” said state Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr. of Cincinnati, who has refused to enter the building because he doesn’t want to support a museum that he thinks has misled the public.

Planners said in 1997 that the center would attract a million visitors a year. But by 2002, estimates were scaled back to 260,000 people. Then-Freedom Center President Ed Rigaud said he expected losses of $2 million to $3 million a year, but he promised the center wouldn’t ask for additional public money to balance its books.

Critics often refer to that comment as the reason the center shouldn’t receive further taxpayer money.

The state contributed $15 million and the federal government gave $22 million for the center’s $110 million construction. The city gave $6 million, as well as the land, worth $3 million, while Hamilton County and the Ohio Department of Transportation built a garage valued at $12 million. The rest came from private donors.

The August 2004 opening of the 158,000-sq.-ft. center drew first lady Laura Bush and television personality Oprah Winfrey. In 2005, the center’s first full year, the center drew 205,000 people to become one of the city’s biggest attractions.

Attendance has steadily declined since then to around 162,000 last year. Just 20 percent of local residents have dropped in, significant for a city where the black and white divide erupted in riots in 2001.

The center lost $5.5 million in its first 18 months of operation. Then-CEO John Pepper said in 2006 that the center would need a $2 million to $3 million annual public subsidy to cover costs.

But no public money has been given for operations, and the center has since reduced costs. It will post a surplus this year for the first time, said Donald Murphy, who took over as the center’s chief executive in May 2007.

Some local whites have feared that the center would be a guilt trip, while some blacks wanted something documenting the atrocities of slavery, said Edith Thrower, the former president of the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP.

“I’m sad people have not embraced it locally,” she said. “I think they just didn’t know what to expect so they made a lot of assumptions. Now they are getting past those assumptions.”