No local debates about outcome of this vote

The ballots are counted, and we’re the winners. And even in an election year, this is one contest in which nobody here is on the losing side.

It wasn’t unexpected, it is very much deserved, and now it’s official: The National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center has been designated as the best free museum in the United States.

So say the people who participated in USA Today’s 2016 Reader’s Choice Awards, among them more than a few loyal local museum supporters who helped get this extraordinary local landmark the greater national attention it should receive.

It’s almost (but not quite) impossible to remember that this stunning museum opened just seven years ago, or that its predecessor was squeezed into a former Fort Benning hospital that could display only a fraction of its irreplaceable collection, much of which was deteriorating in inadequately protected storage areas.

Nobody who has visited the National Infantry Museum as it is today can wonder why it has achieved this public recognition, and against some tough competition — including two Smithsonian museums, no less, and major art museums in Cleveland, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Seattle, Kansas City, Baltimore and New York.

But what makes it exceptional, aside from its technical and design excellence, is its subject matter: the soldiers of the U.S. Army Infantry, and their acts of courage and sacrifice throughout this nation’s history.

It is, as its website notes, “the only interactive Army Museum in the United States … [and] showcases the contributions of the Infantry Soldier in every war fought by the U.S.” More than 300,000 visitors a year now make it a destination.

Although the National Infantry Museum is free to those visitors — which, needless to say, is what makes it eligible for this distinction — the recognition and attending publicity (it will be featured in USA Today’s travel sections both in print and online) could attract sponsorships to help pay off the remaining $8 million-plus of the museum’s $110 million cost. Communications director Cyncy Cerbin said the staff has already put together a “sponsorship packet.”

You couldn’t have called the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center a “secret” even before this recognition; the fact that a nationwide poll rated it as the best underscores that. But it gives people across the country who haven’t seen it a compelling reason to pay us a visit.