Billy Graham Library a big draw, just as it is

More than 165,000 people from all 50 states and 41 countries have walked through Charlotte's Billy Graham Library since it opened to the public a year ago this month.

The overall attendance total is shy of the 200,000-plus estimate offered in early 2007 by Franklin Graham, the evangelist's son and CEO of the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. But that was an unofficial projection based on guesses from tourism experts from the state, presidential libraries, and Disney.

“We've been extremely pleased with the numbers and response from visitors,” an association spokeswoman said in an e-mail, “especially since we had almost no advertising in our first year.”

The site has been most popular, the spokeswoman said, with senior citizen church groups touring from other states, school groups on field trips and, in the summer and on holidays, families.

The $27 million museum-like library, which charges no admission and gets no public funds, is not nearly Charlotte's top tourist spot. Based on its debut year, the library draws more visitors than the Mint Museum of Art (150,000 in 2007), but fewer than the U.S. Whitewater Center (600,000 in its first year, starting in November 2006) and the Discovery Place science museum (over 720,000 in 2007).

Even bigger: Concord Mills shopping center and Lowe's Motor Speedway.

The NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is set to open in 2010, is projected to bring in 400,000 visitors during its first year, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

Still, like the coming NASCAR site, the Billy Graham Library, which tells the story of the Charlotte farm boy who grew up to preach to presidents and millions around the world, helps give a visit to Charlotte national, even international, appeal, said Molly Hedrick, spokeswoman for the Visitors Authority.

“What's wonderful about the Billy Graham Library is that … it's an attraction unique to Charlotte,” she said. “That uniqueness helps us sell Charlotte all the time. … It's great for group tours. And when conventions come, we definitely list it as something to do.”

Religion-themed sites are a growing phenomenon in tourism.

In Petersburg, Ky., near Cincinnati, the Creation Museum opened about the same time as the Billy Graham Library and drew 404,800 visitors its first year. The museum promotes creationism over evolution.

The 40,000-square-foot Billy Graham Library, with an entrance that forms the base of a 40-foot high cross, has everything from a talking mechanical cow to film clips of Graham preaching to recreations of the Berlin Wall and his 1950s-era radio booth.

In an interview earlier this year, Franklin Graham said that he hoped to use the library more after hours, bringing in pastors and others for Christian conferences. The association is also trying to get more families to come. It's closed Sundays, but on May 10, the day before Mother's Day, the first 300 mothers who came through the door got a gift. Next Saturday, the day before Father's Day, the first 300 fathers will get one.

And on May 31 – the one-year anniversary of the library dedication headlined by the elderly Graham himself and former Presidents Carter, Bush and Clinton – all 800 visitors got pieces of cake and copies of “God's Ambassador,” a coffee table photo book featuring images of Graham during his nearly 90 years.