- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

KEARNEY, Neb. (AP) - Mark Foradori has always loved the theater.

There’s no business like show business, even if the venue is slightly unconventional and poised over Interstate 80.

A giant steel arch may not seem to be a typical performance venue, but for Foradori, The Archway’s new marketing director, telling the story of America’s westward movement includes plenty of theatrics. After all, one must find ways to engage busloads of students and folks from out of town while keeping things fresh for the locals.

“I really enjoy finding ways to engage visitors and capture their imaginations,” Foradori said.

That’s a task at which he’s had plenty of practice. As a student at Cleveland State University, Foradori volunteered with the Ohio Theatre and placed props and signs in windows in downtown Cleveland to attract passers-by to shows.

A gig at the Shakespeare Festival at Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland followed. With that slight taste of the thespian life, Foradori was sold.

“I learned very quickly how fun it is to be around show business,” Foradori said.

In the years since, Foradori has had a hand running cultural and arts organizations across the nation, with stints at Buffalo College in New York City to the Lyric Opera Cleveland, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Nebraska Museum of Art.

He took over at The Archway late last year, and was assigned with building interest in Kearney’s unique roadside attraction, the Kearney Hub (http://bit.ly/2mk1R3l ) reported. He has been at full throttle since.

“The thing about nonprofits and teaching is that you feel like you’re having this positive impact that you might not have in other jobs,” he said.

In the case of The Archway, that effect extends well outside Nebraska’s borders.

“About 70 percent of our visitors are from out of town, and they always leave talking about how neat this exhibit they may have passed on the highway several times is,” he said.

Keeping those out-of-town visitors flowing through the doors will be critical to The Archway’s success. The brainchild of former Gov. Frank B. Morrison, The Archway opened as The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument to great fanfare in July 2000 and had more than 200,000 visitors in each of its first two years.

Exhibits telling of buffalo stampedes, gold seekers, Mormon Trail riders and train workers initially captivated audiences, but over the years, The Archway struggled to build momentum.

Traffic waned, as did the supporting revenue. Mounting debt forced The Archway board to file for bankruptcy in 2013, and the city of Kearney and Buffalo County stepped in to help, agreeing to a financial boost for 2014, 2015 and 2016 as The Archway worked to rebrand.

But with Nebraska’s state budget now at a deficit for 2017, some outside funding has dried up. So, this year, The Archway will extend its steel wings and fly on its own.

“The Archway is going through an evolution. We’ve overcome the financial hurdles, and now it’s time to focus on how to expand the exhibits and better engage visitors,” he said.

That evolution includes a slew of educational speakers booked for the fall. They will help tell the stories and share the music of early Nebraska.

The monument is also celebrating the Nebraska Sesquicentennial with its younger visitors. Every school group that visits has been asked to bring an item to add to a time capsule. Foradori said the plan is to open it in 2042 for Nebraska’s 175th anniversary.

Just outside of The Archway doors, visitors will soon find some changes, too.

A hiking and biking trail extension will open at The Archway in July. It should make the trip to nearby Fort Kearny on two wheels an easy one.

“The extension of the hike-bike trail out by the Earth Lodge and Sod House will open in the summer,” says Foradori. “It will connect right to Fort Kearny, and people are pretty excited about it.”

The museum also has become a prime stop for birdwatchers during crane season, when more than 500,000 sandhill cranes stop in the Platte River Valley before they resume their migration northward, something Foradori plans to capitalize on.

“Crane season is really popular with birdwatchers,” he said. “They start coming in flocks starting around Valentine’s Day, and we tend to see a steady stream right until tax day.”

That’s just the start. Foradori plans to brainstorm with The Archway staff - some whom have been there since the attraction opened - during the off-season to develop more programs and find new ways to keep interest in The Archway piqued. It’s an opportunity to really put his mark on the monument and provide a vital lifeline for the Archway, an idea Foradori revels in.

“I love being part of this thing we’re all proud of,” he said.

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Information from: Kearney Hub, http://www.kearneyhub.com/

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