On a hot August night back in 1999, I can recall standing on Interstate 80 — which had been closed to traffic — as the 1,500-ton Great Platte River Road Archway Monument was hauled into place atop massive, bulldozer-like crawler machines.
It was a spectacle to be sure. Dignitaries from across the state gathered as the $60 million Arch was slowly crawled across the four-lane interstate. Beverages were served, cannons were fired, and yearly attendance of 1 million was predicted.
This hunk of steel and prairie trail history, it was said, would finally realize a long-time dream of the state: to lure travelors off I-80 to stop, shop and stay a spell in Nebraska. Finally, we Cornhuskers would have an attraction we could boast about, like Mt. Rushmore or the Rocky Mountains.
But I remember thinking this was a lot of trouble, and expense, just to place a museum over the Interstate. I wondered quietly what could be accomplished if millions weren’t wasted on locating this steel, fort-like structure above the Interstate. What kind of amazing museum, you had to wonder, could be created if it was located at a historic spot along the Oregon Trail instead of a routine bend in the road outside of Kearney?
Wouldn’t that be better?
I wish I’d been wrong in those thoughts, but it turns out maybe there was something to that.
The Arch, which local skeptics called “the double-wide in the sky,” never provided the “wow” factor needed to lure travelors off I-80. Motorists, it seems, had better things to do with their time — like get where they were going — than tour through a fairly expensive museum about pioneer history.
Don’t get me wrong. A trip through the Arch was fairly cool and I don’t doubt that folks really tried hard to make it a wonderful tourist site. But once I visited, I never felt the urge to go again.
And when you watched the slow trickle of visitors walk through the high-tech exhibits, they seemed most fascinated by the lowest tech exhibit of all — a window in which you can look down on traffic passing underneath the Arch.
The architecture wasn’t all that fascinating. The best feature of the Arch was the shining steel sculpture atop the roof — the flying horse and the corn fence. But it wasn’t enough to convince people to interrupt their travels for a side trip.
Now the Arch is bankrupt. Even after a massive refinancing of its debt, it didn’t come close to earning enough revenue to pay the bills.
I’m sure some people will blame the poor access to the Arch for its troubles. It was a 2-mile drive to get to the place. But if something is cool enough, people will take the time and drive there.
Now, a new I-80 interchange is almost completed at Kearney, which is only a few yards away. But it won’t help. Heck, it blocks a view of the Arch as you approach it from the East. Those travelors will keep driving, just as they’ve done in the past.
The story of the oversold, covered-bridge like facility isn’t all bad.
It was encouraging to see people take a risk to improve tourism in Nebraska. The Arch cost the state very little — it was a privately financed museum. Those investors took a bitter bath.
But next time, when the state has a chance to attract mega-millions for a new tourist attraction, let’s hope they put the money into making an amazing attraction. Don’t waste so much money putting it in an unusual place.