The Inventors Hall of Fame and failed expectations

I wonder how many people in Akron know that the Inventors Hall of Fame is located in the former Rubber Capital of the World? Probably not many. And it doesn’t matter at this point. Looks like the Inventors Hall of Fame is pretty much kaput – at least from Akron’s point of view. That’s really a shame. So many people had such high expectations for the museum to be a magnet for tourism — and a foundation for a revitalization of Akron’s downtown. Oh well.

The story of the Inventors Hall of Fame is interesting on a number of levels — including how difficult it is to make a big community economic development idea work even when you have considerable public and private support. The Inventors Hall of Fame for Akron was a big idea.

In the 1980s, civic and business leaders, including John Ong, then chairman of BFGoodrich, decided that Akron should compete with other cities (such as Philadelphia) to become the home of the museum. (At that time the museum was housed in the equivalent of a room in the Patent Office in Washington.) And with much work and enthusiasm Akron won. Then it was a matter of building a magnificent building at 221 S. Broadway — and then sit back and wait for people to flock into downtown Akron to learn about the accomplishments of our great inventors, Bell, Edison and others.

Neat idea. And a source of tremendous civic pride and accomplishment. Unfortunately, here’s where reality enters the picture. When the museum opened, the expectation was that annual attendance would be in the range of 300,000 or so. I know this — because I helped shape the communications that outlined those goals. And here’s the rub. I never really questioned those numbers. And neither did reporters — at least not in print — with the Akron Beacon Journal and other newspapers. Everyone kind of chuckled — but maybe it was a Field of Dreams. Build it an they will come. Unfortunately, no.

Last year, according to an article in the Akron Beacon Journal, attendance was about 40,000. And I assume that includes every student in every grade school in Northeast Ohio.

Here’s from the story, written by Carol Biliczky:

Hopes were sky high when Akron clinched the deal to land the National Inventors Hall of Fame almost two decades ago.

But prospects soured quickly once the museum opened in a futuristic new building at 221 S. Broadway.

”No matter how much money we spent on it, it was a loser,” said Robert Briggs, chairman of the board of directors for the Hall of Fame Foundation, which oversees four subsidiaries including the museum. ”We were too optimistic.”

The hall of fame closed the doors of the museum to the public in April. Now most of the building will become part of a magnet school for math and science students.

And one other section from the ABJ article:

Even though the hall of fame put $5 million into the original exhibits and more money later, the public apparently had little interest in looking at plaques of inventors who created the hollow fiber artificial kidney and the silicon solar cell or fiddling around in a do-it-yourself workshop.

”Today’s kids have a very different expectation than earlier generations had,” said Ford Bell, president of the American Museum Association in Washington, D.C. ”I was happy to look at dioramas, but they expect a screen, something that engages them.”

Dreams to make the annual induction of inventors into the hall of fame as glitzy as the Emmys or Oscars did not pan out, said Edwin ”Ned” Oldham, the Akron patent attorney who was instrumental in bringing the hall of fame to Akron.

OK. The point of this is not to be critical of anyone associated with the museum — or about what has happened. I played a small role in this years ago — and I believed it had a chance of being a success and forming the basis for some much needed economic development in Akron.

Saying that, here are some things I was thinking about while running this morning. And maybe they apply to other community projects and economic development activities — and to communications in general.

First, I should have pressed more on the attendance projections. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to set unrealistically high expectations with these projects — or others. This was a volunteer activity for me — volunteered because my boss John Ong was involved. I didn’t ask the tough questions here that I would have asked if this had been my real job.

Second, the Akron Beacon Journal was a big supporter of Akron landing the Inventors Hall of Fame — and of the museum in subsequent years when things clearly were not going as well as expected. How does a newspaper reconcile its genuine interest in the community with its obligation to report fairly and accurately? I was involved through the years in several discussions with ABJ editors and reporters when they could have printed very negative stories about the museum (and subsequently Inventure Place, which emerged after it became clear that 300,000 weren’t coming to Akron each year to look at static tributes to mostly long-gone inventors.) But they didn’t print those stories. Was the city — and taxpayers — well served by that?

Third, it’s possible to harness incredible community resources to work toward a common end. Yet even with that there is no guarantee of success. It’s tough out there folks.

This wasn’t a failure in leadership — or in the ability of a community to act on a big idea. Maybe it was just a failure of not meeting unrealistic expectations.

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