By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
NASHVILLE — Tennessee taxpayers this year reportedly gave more than $2 million to tourist attractions that are mostly privately owned and attract a fair number of visitors.
State officials gave $1 million to the city’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where a Carrie Underwood exhibit recently attracted 668,000 people, according to Tennessee Watchdog partner FOX 17 of Nashville
If the museum and other attractions are seemingly doing well, why then, do they need taxpayer money?
Country Music Hall of Fame Director Kyle Young was unavailable for comment Thursday, as was Keyes Williamson, executive director of the Knoxville Botanical Garden.
Taxpayers gave the Knoxville facility $500,000, according to FOX 17.
Taxpayers gave the same amount to the Chattanooga History Center, which is still under construction, FOX 17 said.
Museum spokesman Vince Butler told Tennessee Watchdog the new museum will help attract new visitors and enhance the city’s economic development.
“Studies have shown these types of visitors stay 53 percent longer and spend 36 percent more money than other kinds of tourists, both of which pay local taxes that help fund government services,” Butler said in a statement.
The economic development argument may not work for Henning, which has the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center.
State taxpayers gave $50,000 to the childhood home and now burial site of the “Roots” author, FOX 17 reported.
Henning has a population of about 945 , according to 2010 census data, located in west Tennessee north of Memphis, The nearest hotels and restaurants are at least 15 miles away, said Paula Boger, museum executive director.
Unlike the other museums FOX 17 cited, the Haley Museum operates under the jurisdiction of the Tennessee Historical Commission, not privately.
Boger told Tennessee Watchdog the museum, which consists of Boger and another employee, gets about 5,000 visitors per year and couldn’t operate without taxpayer financial support.
“If we just relied on revenue from visitors we wouldn’t be open half the time because we wouldn’t even be able to open the utility bills,” Boger said.
“People don’t have a clue as to how much it costs just to run the facility. We charge $4 just to make it affordable.”
Adding to the museum’s overhead costs is a 6,500-square-foot Interpretive Center, which was added to the Haley home in 2008 and cost taxpayers $1.2 million.
“With this new facility that they built, the utility bills are higher,” Boger said.
“Nobody knew how much it was going to cost to keep this facility going. Now we’re feeling the brunt of it.”
Boger said she and her sole co-worker work without benefits — other than a salary — and don’t have enough money to advertise the museum beyond Facebook and word of mouth.
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