GulfQuest National Maritime Museum is in trouble. A report from NBC 15 finds that the number of visitors coming to GulfQuest from September 2017 to September 2018 fell 93% below projections. The museum was originally expected to draw about 300,000 visitors per year; but in its first year, saw just 73,000 visitors. Its second year was better, with attendance up to around 80,000 visitors. But the numbers for the most recent period fell off a cliff. Just 20,000 people came to GulfQuest, and half were on student field trips.
- 9/2015 - 9/2016 -- 73,000
- 9/2016 - 9/2017 -- 80,000
- 9/2017 - 9/2018 -- 20,000
This is just awful by any measure. If anything, attendance should have improved once the cruise ship business returned to our port. GulfQuest is a good attraction, ranked #4 of 56 things to do on TripAdvisor.com.
So if people who go to the museum actually enjoy the experience, then what's wrong here? A lack of marketing is certainly part of the problem. During the museum's first year of operation, there wasn't even a sign on the interstate for it. That's just unheard of for a major public attraction. And while the museum now has its interstate sign, it doesn't have a lot of money for marketing. Somehow, the museum needs to get into the public consciousness and draw tourists, and they need to do it without a lot of money. That's tough.
The other is its location. Well, sort of.
It only makes sense for a maritime museum to be on the river, but Mobile's waterfront has hardly been seen as a tourist attraction. There's a park, and Cooper Riverside is a really nice park. If you joined us at Wine on the River, you know it's a great place to have an event. And it's also where some cool new boat tours of our working waterfront originate. But to get there, pedestrians have to cross the 6-lane monstrosity that is Water Street. (Fun fact: Water Street was supposed to be an interstate connecting to I-10; but it fortunately never happened). There's the cruise terminal, great if you're taking a cruise. There's the convention center, great if you're going to a convention. And then there's GulfQuest. Despite being in a beautiful (and I'd say architecturally interesting) building, it's largely out of sight and out of mind.
This is what the city leaders are trying to change.
Water Street is being reduced to four lanes, instead of six. Bike lanes are being added, and maybe most important, pedestrian access to the other side of Water Street, and thus to our waterfront, will be greatly improved.
The city is also discussing plans for a new waterfront seafood restaurant and a container bar in the area around GulfQuest. What's a container bar? Apparently, it's a bar built with shipping containers. Fun! [Take a look at one in Austin, Texas at this link].
There's a meeting to talk about this proposal on Tuesday (11/6) at 1PM.
Mobile was built on a river, and then as the years went by, we looked away from it. Then we built a museum on the river. In hindsight, we were getting ahead of ourselves. There weren't any people going to the waterfront, so why would they go to a museum on the waterfront?
Now the city is trying to make the Mobile River a part of our public space once again. This idea deserves our support. Cities across the country have embraced their long-neglected rivers with encouraging results. Oklahoma City's river had actually dried up! So they came up with a plan to add water and make it part of the city again (with fantastic results).
My hope is that city leaders and citizens will work together to develop a strong plan to completely embrace our river once again, basically fixing up the city's front porch. That alone won't bring GulfQuest up to the attendance levels it needs; but it will certainly help the situation. And it gives us back something important, the very river upon which our city was founded.