WWII Museum hopes to finish expansion by 2017

February 25 2014 | Latest News

BY JAQUETTA WHITE, New Orleans Advocate

The National World War II Museum in the Warehouse District has been a near constant construction zone for more than five years. As doors opened on one new building or exhibit, pilings were being driven for another.

The Solomon Victory Theater complex in 2009 was followed by the John Kushner Restoration Pavilion in 2011 and the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: Boeing Center in 2013.

What began with converting a single old building is now an operation with a $30 million operating budget, 325 employees and $300 million in assets.

“The footprint that we have is a great part of the story of what the museum has accomplished,” the museum’s executive vice president, Stephen Watson, said Monday. “We have seen tremendous growth.”

The museum is not done yet, and it is counting on the state to provide part of the financing for several planned projects.

As it prepares to welcome its 4 millionth visitor next year, it is gearing up for its final development act: two new exhibit halls, a high-rise parking garage and a privately developed hotel.

The museum hopes to conclude construction on the last of the projects in 2017, more than 15 years after opening its doors.

The National D-Day Museum opened June 6, 2000. Congress designated it the National World War II Museum three years later.

Using oral accounts and artifacts such as weapons, helmets, uniforms and medals, the museum explains why World War II was fought, how the war was won and what it means today.

Although it didn’t intend to be, the institution has become a collecting museum as people donate their own memorabilia.

Less than 5 percent of the museum’s total archive of 7,500 oral accounts, 200,000 images and 100,000 artifacts is on display, President and Chief Executive Officer Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller said.

Last year, nearly 400,000 people visited the museum. It expects that number to climb to 460,000 this year.

“It’s our goal to get this museum finished while there are still some World War II veterans alive.” Gordon ‘nick’ mueller, museum president and CEO

The museum is “responsible for telling the epic story of that war in an epic way,” Mueller said.

This year, the institution will open the first phase of Campaigns of Courage: European and Pacific Theaters, a 17,000-square-foot building with exhibits documenting the global scope of the war. The second phase of that exhibit space will open in late 2015.

An education center and the final major exhibition hall, Liberation Pavilion, exploring the closing days of World War II and the conflict’s legacy, will follow in 2017.

The museum has a fundraising goal of $325 million for the projects and has raised about $201 million, Mueller said.

Before Katrina slowed the work, the museum had planned to complete construction in 2012. Now it has given itself a 2017 deadline to complete the latest expansion, Mueller said, so that remaining World War II veterans will be able to enjoy it.

Only about 1 million of the 16 million people who fought in the war are still alive. About 12,000 of those live in Louisiana. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 555 U.S. World War II veterans die each day.

“We’re trying to get to the goal line here. We’re losing our veterans across America and across this state,” Mueller said. “It’s our goal to get this museum finished while there are still some World War II veterans alive.”

The museum is seeking access to a $15 million noncash line of credit from the state to help pay for five projects, said Bob Farnsworth, senior vice president of capital programs. The money was allocated in the last legislative session as a Priority 5 in the state’s capital outlay budget. It would have to be moved to Priority 1 to be spent.

Gov. Bobby Jindal will decide whether to authorize the move. “We’re hopeful he’ll find a way to include us,” Mueller said.

The state provided seed money that helped the museum attract private investment in its early days.

Over more than a decade, the state has invested $45 million in the privately held nonprofit museum.

Museum officials are making a case for state support because of the “importance of our mission, the great amount of positive publicity it brings to the state and the significant return on investment the state receives from the museum,” Farnsworth said.

According to the museum, it was responsible for 200,000 hotel room nights last year.

About half of the state’s $15 million would go to replace a surface parking lot with a 450-space, multistory parking garage, with retail space on the bottom level, across Magazine Street from the museum.

As its visitor count climbs, the museum also is talking with a private developer about building a $30 million, 194-room hotel adjacent to the garage. The museum, which owns the property, would participate in developing the hotel, which would be “lightly themed” around the war, Mueller said.

Mueller said a hotel is in line with the museum’s needs as it hosts a growing number of private and community events outside museum operating hours.

The City Planning Commission recently approved plans for the garage.

“We’re shovel-ready with these projects,” Mueller said. “We’d be ready to break ground on the hotel once the first car drives into the parking garage.”