Flexing military might

Since relocating to its new digs six years ago, the National Civil War Naval Museum at Port Columbus has been averaging about 25,000 visitors per year.

But that's nowhere near enough, concedes Bruce Smith, the museum's executive director. That's why his facility and its patrons are investing nearly $1 million into a new sailing and steam ship. It will be an interactive attraction, but also serve as a marketing tool to lure motorists who just happen by the facility.

"One of the things we found out since we opened the doors is that too many visitors have mistaken us for a warehouse, and they've come in and said: 'You know, I looked for 45 minutes and finally stumbled on to you. You need to have something more recognizable.’ ”

That's only the tip of the proverbial bayonet, however. Smith is hoping his effort to improve the visitor experience will fit in well with what appears to be a military history tourism niche developing in the Columbus area.

The $85 million National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Patriot Park should be opening by late 2008 at Fort Benning. The U.S. Armor Center will bring its own museum to the post as it relocates here from Fort Knox, Ky., by 2011.

In outlying areas, the Fort Mitchell Historic Landmark Site is being turned into an early-1800s settlement and fort. The site was a staging ground for the military's infamous "Trail of Tears" march of American Indian tribes from the Southeast to Oklahoma.

Then there's Andersonville Civil War Village about 65 miles east of Columbus. The Georgia town was home to a prison for Union soldiers during the 1860s conflict, ground that now serves as a national cemetery and site of the National POW-MIA Museum. The Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau promotes Andersonville because it is within an easy drive of the city.

"Maybe we'll be able weave a trail or military-related history experience through all of that so if it's the die-hard Civil War buff, we've got that for them," said Peter Bowden, president and CEO of the CVB. "If you've got someone who's curious about military history overall, we can take them from the past to the future, literally from the pioneer days with Fort Mitchell to the soldier of the future with the Infantry Museum."

Cashing in on military history

Tourism and hospitality is big business for Columbus. An estimated 961,000 visitors pumped nearly $300 million into the local economy in 2006, according to Columbus State University data. Roughly 6,000 people are employed locally in the sector, serving people staying in hotels, restaurants and retail shops.

Statewide, about 217,000 people worked in travel-related jobs in 2005, with visitors dropping more than $28 billion into Georgia's economy. The state generated $1.28 billion in tax revenue from the sector.

Georgia is already gearing up for the 150th anniversary of the first shot fired during the American Civil War. Several battles, including the last major Confederate victory at Chickamauga and Union Gen. William T. Sherman's "March to the Sea," are renowned in history books. Sherman's troops cut a destructive swath from northwest Georgia through Atlanta and on to Savannah.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has pledged $5 million to improve historic sites related to the bloody conflict. The state is hoping to cash in big from tourists seeking to explore Civil War history during the anniversary in 2011.

"There are enthusiasts and historians who come from all over the country and from foreign countries foreign countries to visit these sites," said Dan McLagan, a spokesman for Perdue.

Said Dan Rowe, Georgia's deputy tourism commissioner: "Part of what we need to do is reach beyond just the Civil War buffs — to be able to tell the story in a compelling way to a much broader audience and get them interested."

So-called "heritage tourists" spend an average of 30 percent more per trip than typical travelers, the state says, with longer stays and higher spending at hotels, restaurants and gift shops.

Consulting firm Randall Travel Marketing says 20 percent of the Columbus' visitation is military related, Bowden said. That has prompted the CVB to begin pitching the city and its attractions — including downtown, the riverwalk and its performing arts venues — to more military reunion planners. The city's competition for the planners' attention, Bowden said, is "every place."

"You name a destination and most of these groups are just looking for a place to come," he said. "Obviously, what gives us the edge is the fact that we've got the Infantry Museum here and Port Columbus and a rich military history component. And there's Fort Mitchell and Andersonville."

Port Columbus shaping up

Smith for one is convinced the military-history experience is a diamond in the rough for the community. The National Infantry Museum is looking to attract as many as 400,000 visitors annually, and he expects Port Columbus to get a decent slice of that pie.

The new ship project is a replica of the USS Water Witch, a sailing and steam ship that was part of the Union Navy. It was seized by the Confederate Navy in 1864 off the coast of Savannah, Ga., but was later destroyed to keep Union troops from recapturing it.

The cost of the ship is $962,000, with more than $400,000 already raised. Last Thursday, the museum held a ground-breaking of sorts — using sledgehammers to launch site work that will include pouring concrete, putting in masts and a smokestack. The vessel will be completed as funding becomes available.

Port Columbus will be symbolic in the sense that it will serve as a formal gateway to south Columbus, an area of town working to revitalize itself, Smith said.

But, most importantly, it will bring more of an interactive flair to the facility, which should boost visitation toward the 50,000-per-year level the museum director would like to see.

"It gives us a great platform for new educational programs and special events," Smith said. "When we bring kids here we've never been able to put ’em on a ship. Finally we're going to be able to put them on a ship and show them how to raise and lower sails and all of the stuff that goes on on a mid-19th century vessel. The main deck of that ship will be alive. Everything will operate."

Plans, Bowden said, are to help the military attractions package themselves so that visitors who experience one will more than likely venture to others. Smith sees clustering of tickets for special events, with group discounts, perhaps, at gift shops and eateries.

"I think the big, big tourism draw for Columbus is going to be military history," Smith said, "because you're going to be able to get things here the combination of which you can't get anywhere outside of Washington D.C."