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After losing millions, can Prairiefire dinosaur museum in Johnson County evolve?

‘There is so much to see and do’ at Prairiefire Museum

Known for its dinosaur exhibits, the Prairiefire Museum hosts educational programs for all ages.
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Known for its dinosaur exhibits, the Prairiefire Museum hosts educational programs for all ages.

As dinosaur exhibits go, the one now on display inside the Museum at Prairiefire in Overland Park couldn't be more dramatic — or, perhaps, symbolic.

The exhibit shows a skeleton of a pachycephalosaurus in a battle with three sharp-toothed and razor-clawed relatives of the velociraptor of "Jurassic Park" fame.

But which way the struggle will lead is anyone's guess.

So it goes for the nonprofit Museum at Prairiefire, which has been working mightily to get on sure footing after struggling through a financial tar pit all its own just four years after opening in May 2014 at 135th Street and Nall Avenue.

In 2015, documents show, the museum operated more than $2 million in the red and did so again in 2016. Revenue from ticket sales has reached only a fraction of original predictions.

Although 2017 is once more expected to show a loss, it's less than half that from the previous years, according to preliminary figures shown to The Star. Museum officials insist that 2017 is also the year they began to make a turnaround. Because of cost cutting and new "business initiatives" to generate new revenue, they see better days ahead.

"We're very confident about the future of the museum," said real estate developer Fred Merrill, who built the museum as the centerpiece attraction of his surrounding 60-acre Prairiefire development of stores, restaurants, apartments and entertainment venues. He later added, "We're going to make it. There's no doubt about that."

Merrill sat last week with his wife, Candy Merrill, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in synchronized swimming who is volunteering as the museum's unpaid executive director. She is the facility's third executive director in four years. Other members of the museum's leadership team sat around the conference table.

At one point, his voice caught with emotion. "It's probably the most meaningful thing I've ever done in development," he said. "Or as an adult in a community. It's so rewarding."

Yet the question for the boutique natural history museum — set inside its own $27 million, cathedral-like building — isn't just whether it has found the way to shake off the financial woes that have gnawed at its back. It's also whether its current mission to evolve and adapt might allow it to bring in money and flourish.

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The peaks and shards of colored glass on the facade of the museum conjure a fire on the prairie. Shane Keyser skeyser@kcstar.com

'It's really cool'

In 2012, the corporate entity, MC Prairiefire I, received nearly $65 million in sales tax revenue bonds (often referred to as STAR bonds) approved by the state of Kansas to support the mixed-use Prairiefire development, whose retail tenants include the Cinetopia movie theater, Pinstripes entertainment complex and REI outdoors store.

STAR bonds, which were first used in Kansas to build the Kansas Speedway in Wyandotte County, are powerful inducements meant for attractions that are likely to draw faraway visitors. Children's Mercy Park and Village West have also benefited from the bonds. The bonds, sold to investors, provide a project its upfront cash, which is paid off over time with local and state sales taxes generated from purchases made within the project.

Some $22 million in bonds paid more than 80 percent of the construction costs of the museum, made of Kansas limestone and dichroic glass, which changes color with the light.

There is much evidence the museum is well-liked by whose who go — reportedly more than 350,000 visitors in 2017. Throughout the school year, it is often filled with busloads of children on field trips. Since 2014, the museum claims to have hosted kids from 58 school districts, not including its summer camp and other kids' programs.

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A full-scale cast of the Tyrannosaurus rex discovered by Kansas native Barnum Brown is on display in the Prairiefire Museum's great hall. Keith Myers kmyers@kcstar.com


Inside, the skeleton of a great winged pteranodon hangs suspended from the ceiling. The cast skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex stands just inside the entryway. Upstairs, in the museum's hands-on Discovery Room, kids can dig for dinosaur bones, smell a moon rock, pick up the replica skulls of mankind's ancient ancestors and peek in on a live bearded dragon from Australia or a poisonous blue frog from the Amazon. Virtual reality headsets put viewers on the edge of an erupting volcano or alongside the celestial calendar that is England's prehistoric Stonehenge.

"I think it's really cool and good. I love how there's all those interactive exhibits," said Sam Jones, 12, who was on a school trip last week from Osceola, Mo., and soon to enter the seventh grade. "I, for sure, didn't think I would get to see any new species of dinosaurs. I didn't think I'd be learning about evolution, either, in a fun game. That was awesome."

Kids at Ridgeview Elementary School in Olathe, where 83 percent of the enrollment qualifies for free or reduced lunch, have been taking field trips to the museum for two years as part of the Urban Advantage outreach program. The museum's program involves 1,800 students in kindergarten to sixth grade in four districts and includes professional development for school staff.

Even the older students enjoy it, said Ridgeview's principal, Kim Thorup. "They're the hardest to please because they're ready to move on to the next phase of their life, but they absolutely love it," she said.

But after a promising start, records show, the museum fell into trouble.

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After its first seven months of operation in 2014, the museum ended the year by banking nearly $1.5 million in revenue, minus expenses. But in 2015, the museum ended the year more than $2.2 million in the hole. In 2016, it fell into the same morass, but deeper, ending up nearly $2.5 million in the red. Losses in 2017 are not expected to be as severe, preliminary numbers show.

Such a trend, Merrill conceded, is not sustainable. "It isn't," he said. "You can't keep doing that."

Even between 2015 and 2016, the museum began tightening its belt, trimming costs. In 2016, for example, Prairiefire spent $14,486 in advertising and promotion, 85 percent less than the $97,012 the year before. Travel costs in 2015 were $32,626; in 2016, they were down to less than $6,000.

In Merrill's application for the STAR bonds, consultants projected that first-year ticket sales would likely top $2.4 million, rise the next year to $3.8 million, then $3.5 million before finally settling in at more than $3 million annually. Gift shop sales were projected to first approach and then surpass $1 million yearly. But in reality, yearly ticket sales have averaged around $390,000 through 2016. The gift shop is no longer there, replaced by the virtual-reality volcano experience.

The projections — an official statement for investors — were made by the St. Louis firm Development Strategies, which did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Prairiefire's lofty projections resemble those for the Power & Light District downtown, which consultants thought would fetch more revenue than it actually has and likely ever will. Unlike taxpayers on the Missouri side of the state line, Overland Park residents aren't on the hook to cover any of Prairiefire's debt obligations. That risk belongs to the investors who bought the Prairiefire bonds.

A contract ends

The Museum at Prairiefire's original business model was built on its alliance with the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The famed facility would send a new traveling exhibit to Prairiefire every six months through the start of this year. Although Prairiefire's signs and marketing material still highlight the relationship, the New York museum has stopped providing exhibits.

“The original contract between the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum at Prairiefire has concluded, so it is not currently hosting any of our temporary exhibitions, but may do so in the future," Roberto Lebron, the American Museum's senior director of communications, confirmed to The Star in an email.

In an email, Merrill said that the relationship with the American Museum is "evolving but we continue to work with them now and in the future."

The last exhibit from the New York museum, "Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration," closed in March.

The current traveling exhibit, "Modern Dinosaurs?" with its struggling pachycephalosaurus, and the next one coming in June, "Savage Ancient Seas," are being leased from Triebold Paleontology Inc. of Colorado.

Merrill said Prairiefire's relationship with the New York museum remains positive. But the museum has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to lease exhibits to fill its 8,000-square-foot traveling exhibition room. Public financial documents show that Prairiefire paid $237,286 on exhibits in 2016, which, museum officials say, didn't cover transportation, maintenance or installation.

Now the museum is looking to trim costs by booking less-expensive shows.

"The really big exhibits that are 7,000 to 10,000 square feet can be $180,00 to $250,000 for three months," said Reese Barrick, the director of the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, part of Fort Hays State University. "They can be even more expensive if you get something extremely popular."

At 4 years old and a total of 41,000 square feet, Prairiefire isn't just a young museum, it's also a comparatively tiny museum. Unlike the publicly supported Sternberg or the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas, Prairiefire doesn't have its own large, standing collection of dinosaur fossils, gems, animal dioramas or other natural history artifacts to lure repeat visitors.

"History museums in themselves universally have a problem. Their audience is not as wide," said Larry Meeker, who chairs the Johnson County Museum Foundation and promotes the arts as chair of Kansas' Creative Arts Industries Commission. "How do you keep people coming back? That's the real challenge."

Funding, too, can be tricky. Relying heavily on tax support can leave museums open to political whims. One moment funding is there, the next it's slashed. But support from taxes or institutions can also provide some security. Prairiefire does not benefit from the public money given to nearby attractions such as the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, the Deanna Rose Children's Farmstead, the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens or the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center.

Adapting to change

Prairiefire's original business model, Merrill said, was predicated on getting visitors to pay as much as $27 for an adult ticket and less for kids to see the exhibits, which changed out every six months.

"Our whole business plan to begin with was alternating exhibitions," Merrill said. "What we wanted to do was change the content and bring new things in, because that keeps people interested."

Merrill and his team have realized that is hardly enough.

"Changes needed to be made," he said. He insists those changes are already well underway.

"This year," Candy Merrill said, "business initiatives are our top priority."

Although the Merrills said Prairiefire has been drawing more than 350,000 visitors each year, many are school groups — on a discount — or people who purchased one-time yearly group memberships for $40 to $155.

"We're super membership-driven," Candy Merrill said. "Our members use this place like crazy. They only pay once."

The museum's large attendance, as such, was not translating into a larger bottom line.

In response, last fall, the museum slashed its entrance fee to $10 for adults and $5 for children, convinced that getting more people in the door to see what the museum has to offer would lead to more enthusiastic boosters.

Merrill, who, records show, has pumped close to $1 million of his own money into the museum since its opening, said the museum is working to attract more big-dollar donors, both corporations and individuals.

In 2014, Black & Veatch, the engineering firm, donated $750,000 to be paid out over 10 years because of the museum's prime focus on science education.

"We remain committed to the museum," Chris Clark, a company spokesman, told The Star in an email last week. "And we are dedicated to supporting innovative and non-traditional learning opportunities for children that produce lasting results."

The museum staff, Merrill said, is also making headway by creating new revenue streams. They include:

A developing collaboration with Fat Brain Toys to create a "Discovery Box" to be mailed monthly to children ages 3 to 5 as part of a paid subscription. The box will include a toy along with educational materials developed by the museum. The museum and the toy chain — which has a shop in the Prairiefire development — will split the proceeds.

Preschool museum membership packages. For $2,500, school staff members and their families receive memberships to the museum. Plus, schools can schedule museum educators to come teach one-hour courses nine or 24 times each year. Teachers can choose the time, dates and types of lessons from a menu of options.

Voyager VR collaboration. The museum is working with the maker of its Stonehenge virtual reality experience to create proprietary VR content that could be sold online or distributed to other museums or other outlets.

Astronomy continuing education courses. In June, the museum, with credits coming from Baker University, will begin offering teachers in the upper elementary and middle school grades a weeklong course on using projects to teach astronomy.

Education guides for museum exhibits. Instead of purchasing written educational material for new exhibits, Prairiefire is creating and selling its own content for outside clients.

"We have to continue to export, export, sell, sell, so people know about us," Merrill said.

Inside the museum's dinosaur exhibit, a first edition of Charles Darwin's 1859 groundbreaking book, "On the Origin of Species," sits open on a shelf. It spells out how the forces of natural selection and adaption to environment determine which species make it.

"We are trying to adapt,'" Merrill said, certain that Prairiefire will not just survive but thrive.

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