- Associated Press - Saturday, February 14, 2015

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) - The simple act of opening a suitcase unfolds a forgotten tale about the more than two-dozen women who came from France to help settle the colonies in Louisiana.

The so-called “Pelican” girls, named after the ship that arrived to into the male-dominated Dauphin Island in 1704, were received with much fanfare. They had no troubles finding husbands.

“I don’t think Mobilians realize this missing piece of their history,” Tony Zodrow, executive director at GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico in downtown Mobile, said.

The opened suitcase begins a high-tech special effect inside a small room decked out in 1700s motif. An image of a woman appears in a mirror, giving the visitor the feeling that they are encountering a ghostly apparition.

She begins to lament, in French accent, the travails of the girls aboard the vessel.

The display, like 40 percent of the museum as a whole, is incomplete. A special effect will be added later that produces smoke.

“You just don’t wheel something like this in and plug it in,” Zodrow said, underscoring the complexities his organization has faced in getting the museum opened.

After a decade of planning, organizing and construction - the latter featuring a much-publicized squabble among contractors and the city that led to the project’s stalling - GulfQuest appears to have an opening in sight.

On March 12, the 39-member board of trustees could leave its quarterly meeting with an opening date in place - Zodrow said an announcement could be publicly made in April - at which time marketing efforts could ramp up in an effort to start a goal of luring 300,000 people through the turnstiles annually.

Progress has been made. The 90,000-square-foot museum that is shaped like a vessel located next to the Alabama Cruise Terminal on Water Street has approximately 60 percent of its exhibits installed, and work is ongoing.

“Very soon … we’ll get to the point where we can project a completion date on the exhibits and infrastructure developments,” Zodrow said. “At that time, we can say with all confidence that we’ll be able to open (on a specific date) and can count on everything being in place.”

He added, “We are at a point where nothing will stop us. There are no funding issues that will stop us, no insurmountable challenges with exhibits or technology. It’s a matter of ‘how long will it take?’”

The GulfQuest board of trustees has already decided that the entire museum won’t open to the public until it’s 100 percent finished, meaning no one will be allowed to tour the museum with incomplete displays.

The board had debated whether to open an incomplete museum to the public. That idea has since been nixed.

“This has been a terrible struggle,” E.B. Peebles, chairman of the GulfQuest board, said. “We know the natural question for people is to ask when will we open? What it comes down to is that you only have one chance to make a good first impression.”

For GulfQuest - the non-profit entity charged with managing the museum — efforts are focused on leading contractors along in order to get all exhibits developed and installed within a timely fashion.

They have only been allowed inside the museum for seven months.

Zodrow has overseen the museum-portion of the project since 2005 when he arrived to Mobile after serving in his prior post as CEO of the McWane Science Center in Birmingham.

But it was only recently that he was able to get inside portions of the museum building after a temporary certificate of occupancy was issued last spring.

It wasn’t until July when the museum exhibitors could have complete access inside the museum.

Much of the delay was related to a dispute between the city and W.G. Yates and Sons Construction, which was awarded a $14.1 million contract - the largest single construction contract doled out on the project - over an error made on its concrete work in December 2012.

The dispute, which was between former Mayor Sam Jones’ administration and Yates, resulted in the city agreeing to pay Yates $307,044 on May 9, 2014, and with the two parties agreeing not to sue each other.

Contractor Ben M. Radcliff was hired to fix it the concrete errors. Radcliff’s overall contract was $5.6 million.

Another reason for the delays: Mold was found in the building in 2013.

Zodrow said GulfQuest was a bystander during this period. The museum could only access a small section of the facility until the certificate of occupancy was released by Hoar Program Management, the construction management charged to oversee the project.

“We were often consulted, but ultimately it was the city’s role to oversee the building construction with Hoar Program Management,” Zodrow said. “We weren’t calling the shots, but we did have a voice in the process, which I greatly appreciated.

Zodrow said that confusion, perpetrated in the local media, associated the non-profit “GulfQuest” name as the entity responsible for the delays, when he said it’s nothing further from the truth.

“I think there is still a lot of confusion,” he said. “When you say GulfQuest, that named can be referred to the project as a whole as it often has been, or it can refer to the non-profit. The city is responsible for the building, and the non-profit has always been there to help and assist with the city’s efforts. (But the non-profit) has its own scope of work it has to address with exhibits and infrastructure.”

E.B. Peebles, chairman of the GulfQuest board, said despite the obvious confusion, it’s time for officials to move forward.

“I’m at the point where I’m looking forward and not backward,” he said.

The forward progress consists of the installing displays, and the museum is very much an active construction site.

Privately, enough money has been raised to complete installation.

It almost didn’t happen.

In November, Zodrow said the museum was able to secure a $4 million line of credit from nine Mobile banks. The credit line was needed to supply immediate financing, since many private pledges are payable in future years.

“When you have pledges payable over four or five years, you got the money but it won’t come in for the next year,” Zodrow said. “You need to do something to accelerate it to spend right now.”

Mike Lee, chairman of the board’s finance committee, said several of the banks considered their role in offering a credit line as a “community service” to help provide GulfQuest the immediate cash to push the museum toward opening.

The non-profit accumulated $18.4 million for exhibits, infrastructure and the initial operations of the museum — $10.9 million coming from private donations (the museum had a $10 million fundraising goal, which it has since raised to $12 million, according to Lee), $4.6 million from federal funding and $2.9 million in new market tax credits.

The private fundraising on the museum exhibits is separate from the public outlay on the construction of the building. The city spent $28 million through two bond issues, and $14.6 million is through federal funding sources.

All told, the public’s investment is $42.6 million.

Zodrow and Lee believe the city’s direct investment, which represents 45.9 percent of the overall construction cost, is considered a bargain.

Zodrow, for one, said it’s rare - aside from privately financed museums such as the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., which is sponsored entirely by Wal-Mart - that a public-private museum is financed less than 50 percent by a local government body.

“They are getting this fantastic asset that will keep feeding tax revenues and tourism and things to come for 50 cents on the dollar,” Lee said. “Every businessman, if someone told them they’d get 50 cents on the dollar, they’d be out there with a shovel.”

He added, “To me, it’s one of the soundest financial decisions they’ve made since I’ve been here.”

The museum, however, is without a contingency or a so-called “rainy day” fund.

But Lee said the board’s long-term goal is to create “some sort of endowment” to fund investments and expand the museum or to provide a reserve if museum attendance and revenue falters.

“We hope to hit pretty quickly that we can support (the museum) on the income and fundraising and sponsorships that can go toward building an endowment,” Lee said.

The private funding applies to displays the public will encounter when they walk through the museum doors.

The first thing they will encounter is the $225,000 “America’s Seas” exhibit that was one of the first features installed last spring. The exhibit is sponsored by Cooper/T. Smith Corp. of Mobile.

“Galley,” a seafood café that will seat 92 people - and offers the only waterfront dining view in Mobile - as well as “Treasures,” a gift shop that will appear like a sunken Spanish galleon - still need to be constructed.

Another display, completed last spring, is a gallery called “Shores of the Gulf” that features sand imported from various regions including Cuba. Each section of the display features artifacts from a particular region along the Gulf; for instance, a first edition of “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway is displayed in the Cuba section, a Waterman’s steamship captain’s hat is featured among the Alabama artifacts.

Adjacent to the gallery is a theater where visitors will watch an orientation film that celebrates the culture and environment of the Gulf. It also highlights two tragedies - the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The 16-minute film, which is narrated by the people who are interviewed within it, took four years to produce.

Within the building, GulfQuest’s exhibits will be housed inside the stern of a full-sized container ship - viewed as the heart of the museum — that is displayed as if it was dockside. The ship commemorates Mobile’s relationship with the evolution of containerized shipping, an idea that was pioneered by Malcom McLean in the 1950s as owner of Waterman Steamship in Mobile.

Surrounding the ship will be 58,000 gallons of water that will match the 22-foot water level of the Mobile River.

Within container ship will be eight galleries containing interactive exhibits introducing visitors to an array of maritime topics including weather and hurricanes - the “Extreme Storms” gazebo allows visitors to enter into the serenity of a sunny Gulf morning that quickly turns chaotic with an approaching storm. Visitors will be in control of making decisions, just like an emergency worker.

Other displays include deep sea exploration, coastal and marine ecosystems, communication, historic and current trade routes, off-shore oil/gas drilling, recreational boating, lighthouses, the fish/shrimp industries, shipbuilding and design, etc.

One of the more complex exhibits, which will be installed early next month, is being dubbed “Stream of Time” and will feature an embedded river bank where visitors can view 175 artifacts documenting every era in Mobile’s history.

The historic exhibits, such as the “Pelican” girls, will be housed in various places throughout the museum including the “Discovery Hull.”

One of the exhibits includes the plight of El Cazador, a Spanish brig that sank in 1784 while attempting to bring currency to Louisiana. The sinking is viewed a symbolic loss of Spain’s hopes for maintaining a hold on Louisiana before its well-known French influence.

Visitors, inside the museum, will be seated in a makeshift boat with a video screen on the floor. The video provides a narrated history of El Cazador’s fate.

“This is not a traditional museum that displays artifacts and historic items,” Lee said. “It’s very much an interactive learning facility that differs from the traditional museum people often think about.”

Zodrow, Lee and Peebles said that the concept of the interactivity surfaced during tours to museums years ago. They said that one of the overriding concerns they had was to avoid creating a static museum where artifacts are for display only - and not touching.

Peebles said during the tours to other maritime museums, they learned about the struggles museum officials elsewhere had in ensuring displays were not stale.

“All of them were fighting the ‘I’ve been there, and done that’ concept,” Peebles said. “We realized then that the wave of the future was interactive and the planning from the beginning was as much interactivity as possible.”

Zodrow said the entire museum is not interactive, but he notes that a majority of it allows visitors to touch something and participate.

Contracts for the museum galleries, the café, offices and classrooms have been divided up among nearly 30 companies. Zodrow did not readily have available the contract estimates for each one.

A majority of the exhibits are being handled by Lyonz/Zaremba of Boston; 1220 Exhibits in Nashville; Monadnock Media in Sunderland, Mass.; Hands On! Exhibits of St. Petersburg, Fla.; AMA Lighting of Mobile; Ben Radcliff of Mobile; and Fabrication Specialists of Mobile.

Even as the exhibit construction continues, Zodrow said GulfQuest is hiring. The museum’s website is posting full-time job openings such as finance director and volunteer services director. An art director was recently hired.

He anticipates adding 35-38 staff before the museum opens.

“We have a lot of hiring to do,” Zodrow said.

He added, “I know there are a lot of people in the job market interested in knowing that GulfQuest is in a ramping up mode in that regard. It offers its own unique set of challenges in hiring that number of people in a short time period. We want qualified applicants.”

Zodrow anticipates posting job openings soon for a development director, special events and marketing managers, and a visitor’s services manager who will oversee ticketing.

Once the museum targets an opening date, efforts will also ramp up to attract schools for field trips starting as early as this fall.

Zodrow said he anticipates 50,000 to 60,000 school children annually in grades K-12. The overall attendance goal for GulfQuest is estimated at 300,000 visitors, which is similar to the attendance goals at the USS Alabama Battleship in Mobile.

Marketing efforts will include school systems in Mobile and Baldwin counties, and Zodrow anticipates offering professional development seminars for teachers, special events for school districts and competitions.

An education guide will be published and distributed to teachers around the region.

At Mobile County Public School System, a list of approved field trip excursion sites is posted online. Among those approved include destinations to New Orleans, Montgomery and Huntsville.

Zodrow said GulfQuest plans on luring schools from those destinations into Mobile for field trips.

“Over time, what you do is build a reputation,” he said. “If a teacher has been here one time and has a good experience, they will tell other teachers.”

But GulfQuest’s marketing efforts go beyond the schools.

The “museum launch” budget is at $922,388, of which $300,000 will be spent on a marketing “blitz” once an opening date is officially announced, Zodrow said.

“We plan to do a lot with outdoor advertising, the billboards, print and broadcast media,” he said.

Zodrow said the reason GulfQuest hasn’t been marketed yet is because “we don’t really have a product to offer yet. We don’t have anything to advertise.”

The goal is draw 300,000 through the museum each year, Zodrow said. He calls it a conservative estimate performed by a firm with a reputation for producing conservative studies.

“It’s not unusual for an attraction in Mobile to do over 300,000 visitors,” Zodrow said, pointing to the USS Alabama, which draws more than that annually.

He acknowledges that there are a lot of skeptics who believe GulfQuest won’t generate that many people, and likened GulfQuest’s goals to those in Huntsville when the Space & Rocket Center opened more than four decades ago.

“When the Space & Rocket Center opened, and you asked whether the attraction will do 500,000 to 600,000 visitors a year, (skeptics) say, ‘no way, we’re Huntsville. That can’t be done,’” Zodrow said. “Yet, they are pulling in (626,311 visitors in 2014). It’s the No. 1 state attraction.”

Zodrow added, “There is nothing I can say to convince people that GulfQuest will do 300,000, but at the same time, we don’t have any concerns about meeting and exceeding that number.”


Information from Al.com, https://www.al.com

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