The National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Patriot Park, which opens its doors and exhibits to the world Friday, is poised to fire a $26.3 million economic shot across Columbus.
That’s the direct financial impact the long-awaited and highly heralded tribute to the nation’s foot soldier is expected to have on the city each year.
The basic statistics, researched by Columbus State University, tell part of the story:
$26.3 million generated from hotel, restaurant, recreation, retail, transportation and miscellaneous sales.
520 jobs created through employment at the museum and other new businesses in the city that hire staff — and existing businesses that add employees — to take advantage of the surge in people visiting the facility and the city.
Between 380,000 and 400,000 annual visitors to the museum located at 1775 Legacy Way, just outside of Fort Benning. Of that number, about 95 percent of those visitors are expected to be from out of town.
“Anytime a new facility like this opens up, it’s like a birthday present or a Christmas present,” said Peter Bowden, president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“We felt the same way when the RiverCenter (for the Performing Arts) came on line and when Port Columbus (Civil War Naval Museum) came on line,” he said. “It’s always good to add one more experience in the destination so that we become more diverse and more appealing to a broader audience. So, yeah, we can hardly wait.”
The $91 million museum is expected to have a major economic impact in the south Columbus area, which has been striving to revive itself after years of serving as a center for nightclubs and cheap motels.
But Bowden believes that with the large numbers of visitors projected to venture to the museum, its presence will be felt far beyond the south side.
“If it follows the pattern historically, the whole community will feel it because it’s not just hotels,” he said. “It’s restaurants, it’s buying gasoline, it’s dry cleaners. So the ripple effect will be throughout the city.”
The hotel sector should certainly benefit. There has been a building boom in recent years, with the city adding about 1,500 rooms to its hospitality base.
There are now about 4,600 rooms in Columbus alone. But several new properties have recently opened, including a Hampton Inn & Suites and Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Phenix City.
A Candlewood Suites and another Holiday Inn Express are under construction off Victory Drive, not far from the museum. They will join a Suburban Extended Stay that opened in the area about a year ago.
“We have turned the corner with south Columbus issues,” said Reggie Richards, general manager of the Suburban hotel and a longtime advocate of south side revitalization.
“I think finally that battleship has been turned around,” she said. “That has taken lots of work and constant plugging it and marketing it. Of course, the museum was the catalyst for it all along.”
The impact the museum will have on the city ranges far from the occupancy rates at the hotels, said Richards, noting her own property tops 80-percent filled regularly. Much of her business is military.
“There are the gas stations, the banks. Everybody is going to get so much business,” she said. “I understand the McDonald’s down here is the highest-grossing McDonald’s in Columbus. And their numbers should be jumping” with the new museum.
But while the coming week will be like the night before Christmas for many local businesses, some are taking a wait-and-see attitude. And some don’t even know the facility exists.
“I didn’t know about the museum. Thanks for the warning,” Tameka Johnson, manager of the Arby’s eatery on Victory Drive, said Friday when informed as many as 400,000 museum visitors could be driving by her doors. The Arby’s, one of many fast-food outlets in the area, is not much more than a mile from the stately red-brick museum and its impressive rotunda.
Harold Encarnacion, owner of Millie’s International grocery market and restaurant on South Lumpkin Road, said he has yet to see any increased business from the museum’s soft opening in March. But he’s hoping for the best.
“We’re trying to get ready for it, but I haven’t seen nothing yet,” he said, pointing out the economy in general has hurt sales. “It’s hit and miss. One day you’re busy, the next day you’re real slow.”
That could change in a hurry if several thousand vehicles carrying hungry tourists and families of infantry training graduates descend on the area after the June 19 opening.
They’ll also need gas, and June Miller, manager of the Citgo Food Store on South Lumpkin Road, hopes she will snag extra business. But she’s skeptical, even with her service station and convenience store being one of the closest to the museum, about a half mile away.
Miller’s concern stems from Fort Benning recently closing the South Lumpkin Road entrance to the post at 1 p.m. each day, essentially cutting off the flow of her typical military clientele.
There’s also the fact that most visitors to the museum are generally being funneled by signs and other marketing tools to its entrance on the Benning Boulevard side of the facility.
“They have that graduation every Thursday and Friday. So we got quite a few (out of towners) in today,” Miller said Friday. “But I think they just kind of stumbled onto the road. That’s the problem, they’re just stumbling through here. I guess they all think they’ve got to go back the same way they went in.”
Miller is hoping the city will put up a sign letting visitors know there are two avenues for entering the museum — Benning Boulevard and South Lumpkin Road.
But, ultimately, Bowden at the CVB thinks there will be enough economic pie to go around. Part of the reason is the emphasis his office is putting on selling military heritage attractions in the Columbus area. Nearly half of his marketing budget goes toward that sector.
“Based on our research, the military market segment is one of our largest and continues to grow because of all the other things happening with Fort Benning,” he said. “More and more of the indicators are pointing to this being a significant attraction within the community.”
Bowden also is looking for the museum to keep the momentum going for overall city visitation. In fiscal year 2007-2008, 1.1 million people stopped in Columbus for business, reunions and to tour the sights. That translated to visitors spending $378 million.
The CVB chief has a strong hunch his newest attraction will perform well and possibly push that number higher in the coming year as it becomes nationally known.
“The Infantry Museum, I would like to think, is going to be one of those top, must-see things,” he said.