Museums contradict budget figures for NASCAR hall

When NASCAR Hall of Fame planners were asking City Council for more money, they overstated the cost of exhibits at comparable museums, according to officials at those museums.

Some council members said the estimates affected their decision Monday to boost the hall's budget by nearly 20 percent, to $195 million. The city report made the NASCAR exhibits seem more in line with others in the industry.

But officials at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland told the Observer on Tuesday that their exhibits were less expensive than NASCAR planners calculated.

“I'd be interested to know” where Charlotte got its information, said Margaret Thresher, a spokeswoman for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

City officials said they gathered the information on visits to museums.

Councilman Anthony Foxx said Tuesday he has asked city staff about the discrepancies.

“That's a serious, real serious, misinformation that is material to the way many of us were analyzing this, if it's true,” he said.

Hall planners said Tuesday they were still trying to learn more about their numbers, but could not immediately reach the appropriate people.

“If there was a mistake made on this end, then we would certainly say that,” said Winston Kelley, executive director of the Hall of Fame. “But we need to research that.”

Under the hall's newly increased budget, the exhibits will cost about $750 per square foot. Exhibit experts say that is near the high end for a museum, but reasonable for a state-of-the-art attraction with interactive stations.

“I would imagine that they are shooting for the sort of fit-and-finish level, the ‘wow' factor akin to going to Disney World,” said Paul Orselli, a New York exhibit designer.

Some City Council members initially balked at the budget request and asked staff to put the cost in perspective. So, in mid-September the staff listed the price of exhibits at three other venues. Of the examples given in the city manager's memo, only the National Constitution Center, which had an exhibit cost of $1,100 per square foot in 2002, was more expensive than NASCAR's hall.

But Steve Frank, the vice president of education and exhibits at the National Constitution Center, said that information is wrong.

“I don't think we spent that much,” he said. He said the actual exhibit budget amounted to about $300 per square foot. While some museums spend up to $1,000 per square foot on exhibits, he said, “our museum was at the lower end of that spectrum.”

The city will pay for the NASCAR Hall of Fame with hospitality taxes, loans and money from land sales. The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority will operate it.

Tim Newman, head of the authority, said he got the exhibit cost for the Constitution Center from a project manager during a 2006 trip to Philadelphia. He said he did not remember that person's name.

“Those are the notes I had,” said Newman, who was out of town Tuesday and said he didn't have any more information on hand.

Charlotte Assistant City Manager Jim Schumacher, who is overseeing the city's role in the NASCAR hall, said he also remembers getting that number on the city's trip to Philadelphia. Schumacher said the figure didn't surprise him, because costs often are high in the northeast.

The staff report said that two exhibits were less expensive than NASCAR's: the 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at $600 per square foot and the 2002 Basketball Hall of Fame at $500 per square foot.

A spokeswoman from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame said that the cost to design and build the Cleveland exhibits was between $300 and $400 per square foot.

Schumacher said all exhibit figures came from Newman, who visited the museums.

“It's not a scientific process,” he said. “What you spend to tell the story of Abraham Lincoln and what you spend to tell the story of the U.S. Constitution and what you spend to tell the NASCAR story, it's not scientific.”

The City Council's vote Monday increased the hall's budget by $32 million. Of that, $17 million will go toward exhibits. The rest will replenish a construction contingency fund and make the building more energy-efficient. The hall, under construction at Stonewall and Brevard streets, is scheduled to open in April 2010.