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Popular tourist attractions, including home of ‘Roots’ author, get taxpayer help

By   /   March 21, 2014  /   News  /   No Comments

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.

HALL OF FAME: Nashville’s Country Music and Hall of Fame Museum, which reportedly received a $1 million grant from Tennessee taxpayers.

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.

ROOTS: Alex Haley’s childhood home in Henning, Tenn.

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.

ADD ON: A $1.2 million Interpretive Center, paid for by Tennessee taxpayers, added on to the childhood home of "Roots" author Alex Haley.

ADD ON: A $1.2 million Interpretive Center, paid for by Tennessee taxpayers, added on to the childhood home of “Roots” author Alex Haley.

“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.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org. or follow him and submit story ideas on his official Facebook page.

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Chris is an investigative reporter for Tennessee Watchdog. He has 13 years experience in the journalism field working with the Beacon Center of Tennessee, the Ruston Daily Leader, the Wise County Messenger, Highlands Today and the Martin County, Florida edition of the Hometown News. Chris is an award-winning writer and photographer whose work has been recognized by Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh and FOX News, among others. Because of Chris' stories, the Washington Post named Tennessee Watchdog one of the nation's best political blogs. Chris can be reached on Twitter @cdbutler1204 and by email at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org.