Freedom Center struggling to stay open

Economic hardships could cause Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center to close by the end of 2012, if it can't find $1.5 million a year to cover future budgets.

Despite having cut its annual operating expenses from $12.5 million when it opened in 2004 to $4.6 million this year, the museum is struggling to stay open, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

"We're operating the museum and programming at bare bones," said Kim Robinson, Freedom Center president and chief executive officer. "We're scratching and clawing."

John Pepper, board co-chair for the Freedom Center and former CEO of Procter & Gamble, said additional reductions will bring the budget to $4 million, but annual revenues are projected at $2.5 million, leaving the $1.5 million shortfall.

The center has sliced its full-time work force from 120 to 34. The Freedom Center is looking at ways to increase revenue. It has paid off its mortgage and is considering raising money from tenants, naming rights, investment in other nonprofits' social programs and bringing in a full-scale restaurant - complete with a liquor - license to replace its current cafe.

Pepper and fellow co-chair the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr. are calling on potential donors here and abroad, private and corporate. Though attendance is up slightly in 2011 over last year and still higher than the national museum median of 80,000, it has been steadily declining since a peak in 2005. Center leaders acknowledge an initial business plan that was flawed, but say they are now getting it right.

"We humbly yet earnestly call on the good citizens of the community to help us," Robinson said. "Now is not the time to give up. It's the time to come together and help us fulfill the great promise of this institution."

Some local critics say the large number of students visiting the museum on field trips pads the attendance, and those students don't generate much revenue. Robinson says the center received $6 per student of the $12 admission price and the difference is made up by private donors. Critics also say they don't want any more taxpayer money spent on the museum. About $250,000 of the center's annual revenue is from the federal government, but the museum won't receive any state, county or city money after this year.

Cincinnati provided a $300,000 grant in 2011 after giving nothing in 2009 or 2010, and the Ohio Cultural Facilities commission authorized an $850,000 grant in February after Pepper signed a personal guarantee.

"My position and COAST's position is we want it to survive and thrive and be a nice addition to the city - without tax dollars," said Cincinnati attorney Christopher Finney.

Finney leads the anti-tax group Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST). Finney disputes an economic impact study by the Research and Consulting Division of the Economics Center at the University of Cincinnati that indicated the center brought $26 million to the region by attracting visitors and conventions.

COAST argues that at least one-fourth of the center's visitors are part of school groups that don't stay in hotels, eat in local restaurants or shop.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)