BY EMILY LE COZ
TUPELO - The Tupelo Automobile Museum launched a new membership program to fund enhanced educational activities planned for this year, but the campaign will also raise much-needed revenues for the three-year-old facility.
Seven levels of membership, from $35-per-year for an individual to $4,000 for a five-year benefactor, will offer auto enthusiasts unlimited trips to the museum, a subscription to the quarterly newsletter, and other goodies.
It will also create another revenue source for the not-for-profit tourist attraction, whose sole funding currently comes from the admission fees paid by visitors.
But attendance has slipped 20 percent during the first two full fiscal years since the museum opened in December 2002. To fully fund operations and new educational programs, and to repay a $3.25 million debt to the city, the museum needs more money.
Kayla Clayborne, director of marketing, doesn't know how many members will join or how much money the program will raise, but she hopes it will be an overwhelming success.
"We already have about 20 members with companies and individuals," she said. "But we get more in every day."
A good deal
David Brevard, owner of B&B Concrete in Tupelo, got a family membership and plans to get a corporate membership soon also. Although not a classic car fan, Brevard wants to support what he sees as an asset to Tupelo and to Mississippi.
"It's genuinely a real shock and surprise for folks to discover that we have such a museum here in Tupelo," he said. "I was really overwhelmed by the fact that there was a car for practically every year since the first cars were made in the late 1800s. The aspect of the collection that is so appealing to me is that is provides almost a year-by-year history of the evolution of the automobile."
Museum owner Frank Spain's collection of more than 100 classically restored automobiles spans from the 1880s, with an 1886 Mercedes Benz, to modern times, with a 1994 Dodge Viper. The collection is valued at $6 million.
Education is key
Brevard also likes that his money will support an educational program for students in the Tupelo and Lee County public school systems.
That program, currently under development by Clayborne and the school districts, will provide curriculums for students that incorporate their area of study with the automobile collection.
"If, for example, a fourth-grade class is studying social studies, they can come in an pull the lesson plan for that subject," Clayborne said. "If they are studying science, there is a different lesson plan."
Clayborne hopes the curriculums, which will be ready by fall, spark an interest in school children that will lead to increased awareness about the automobile.
That awareness, said Spain, has always been the true goal for his museum.
"Education is key," he said while strolling through the 120,000 square-foot museum. "There is a story behind every car."
Those stories are now told by interactive speakers mounted near each car. But in the future, volunteer guides stationed throughout the museum could elaborate on those histories with their own narratives.
Recruiting those guides is part of another program Clayborne hopes to launch soon.
Live guides, enhanced educational activities and the new membership program are now the focus of museum staff who think the combined efforts can boost attendance.
Last fiscal year, 10,693 people toured the museum, according to figures collected by the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau. That's about 34 visitors per day that the attraction is open.
If each one had paid full adult admission, the museum would have earned $106,930 annually. But that falls short of what it needs to repay the $3.25 million it owes the city.
That debt was incurred by Spain when he built his complex on eight acres of city property, then sold it to the city. A nonprofit foundation established by Spain now leases it back for twice-annual payments ranging from $25,000 to $200,000 until 2023.
The most recent payment, made Dec. 5, was $101,888. The next one, due June 5, will be $191,888, said city attorney Guy Mitchell III.
To be profitable, the museum would need to attract 100 people per day, Mitchell said, citing a marketing study conducted for the museum before it was built. But the Tupelo Automobile Museum was never about profit, he said. It was about Spain, his love of automobiles, and his desire to share that love with the rest of the world.
"It's a world-class museum," Mitchell said. "All it needs is some good publicity and good marketing program."
Auto Museum memberships
Tupelo Automobile Museum has seven levels of membership. Each offers unlimited attendance, plus other benefits depending on the level:
- Individual - $35/year
- Family - $50/year
- Contributor - $100/year
- Sustainer - $250/year
- Patron - $500/year
- Benefactor - $1,000/year
- Five-Year Benefactor - $4,000/5 years
Tupelo Automobile Museum
1 Otis Boulevard, Tupelo
10 a.m. to 6 p.m.