Salt museum in Hutchinson, Kan., to mark its fifth anniversary

The Kansas Underground Salt Museum opened its doors — actually its elevator shaft — five years ago on May 1, and donors, board members, staff, volunteers and contributors through the years are being invited back for a “birthday party” on Monday.

“It’s a chance to say thank you to those who were never properly thanked,” said Gayle Ferrell, director of operations of the museum.

Among the visitors will be Jay Smith, the former director of the Reno County Historical Society, who is credited with providing the early vision for a museum in what began as the Carey Salt Mine and is still a functioning mine operated by the Hutchinson Salt Co.

“I think controlling my emotions will be the hardest thing because so much went into it. I just can’t wait to see it,” said Smith, who is now director of the museum of the South Dakota State Historical Society.

Smith said that when he came to Hutchinson to run the Reno County Museum, he wanted to learn everything he could about the city and county. He quickly read about Ben Blanchard, Emerson Carey and the salt industry that was such a big part of the local business landscape nearly a century ago.

There was no “one day” when it dawned on him that there should be a salt museum, Smith said. Others had talked about it previously, going back decades to when the Carey Salt Co. used to take visitors down into the mine on a tour.

Max Liby of Hutchinson Salt, the company that now owns the mine, and Lee Spence of Underground Vaults and Storage “tried to think of a thousand ways to talk to me and the historical society about how difficult it was going to be — not that we shouldn’t do it, but that it was going to be hard,” Smith said.

In April 2000, the Kansas Underground Salt Museum signed an agreement to sublease a portion of the mine used by Underground Vaults and Storage, which securely stores items ranging from public and corporate documents to master copies of movies and costumes and props.

The plan to create the museum was publicly announced on May 2, 2000. But they still had a lot of work ahead. They would need to dig a new shaft to transport visitors 650 feet down, pave the areas where they would walk and create exhibits, safety plans, bathrooms and a visitor center. And most of all, they needed to raise the money to pay for it.

And that’s when unexpected hurdles started to pop up. In January 2001, Hutchinson was ripped by several explosions caused by natural gas that migrated from underground storage caverns and up through old abandoned brine wells that had been used in solution salt mining.

Then less than four months later, just as the supporters of the museum were about to launch a fundraising campaign, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred. When the stock market reopened the next week, values plunged.

“There wasn’t anything that was easy,” Smith said, crediting co-chairmen John Swearer and Tom Elliott for the success.

The Walter E. & Velma G. Justice Foundation gave the fundraising a leg up that year with a pledge of $1 million over 10 years.

In 2004, the Reno County Historical Society and Underground Vaults and Storage reached an agreement in which the society would pay $1 million toward the cost of the new shaft and hoist and the company would pay the remaining $5 million.

“We wouldn’t be here if Underground Vaults and Storage had not desperately needed a new hoist because they wanted to expand their business and they couldn’t do it because they were utilizing the salt skip to move all their freight and people, and the mine would have to stop salt production every time Vaults needed to move people or freight,” said Linda Schmitt, who has been executive director of the Reno County Historical Society since November 2006.

With the cost growing to $10.5 million for the shaft, hoist and visitor center, the city of Hutchinson approved issuing $4.5 million in STAR (sales tax and revenue) bonds to help complete the museum.

Phase one of the visitors center, a 3,400-square-foot building housing essential functions and access to the hoist, was completed in December 2006. The underground infrastructure, such as power, bathrooms, lighting, fire safety, and communications and paving, was completed in January 2007 and preview tours began three months later, leading to the official opening to the general public in 2007.

Ferrell said what made creating the museum so hard was that there was no similar operation to turn to for advice on how to do anything.

“And that’s why it was delayed,” Schmitt said. “Everything was harder and took longer than they thought and was more expensive than they thought. They had so many obstacles. I always say that if the people who started the project had any idea how difficult it was going to be, they probably wouldn’t have tried it.”

More than 46,000 people visited the Underground Salt Museum in just eight months in 2007. In 2008, when the museum was named one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas, there were 58,305 visitors, the most in any year for the museum. Since then, the number of visitors has fluctuated between 53,000 and nearly 56,000, for a total of 277,213 through March 2012.

The STAR bonds are being paid off largely by sales tax revenue collected at 21 local hotels, restaurants and retail businesses in an irregularly shaped district, and Ferrell said they will be retired in late 2012 or early 2013, three years ahead of schedule.

Since 2008, the museum’s operations have been partially subsidized by a 5 percent distribution from the quarter percent city sales tax last approved by voters in 2008. In 2011, the museum received $99,928 from the sales tax.