Transportation Museum Enjoys Big Increase in Visitors

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The Transportation Museum's one-of-a-kind J611 Steam Locomotive.
The Transportation Museum's one-of-a-kind J611 Steam Locomotive.
The Transportation Museum’s one-of-a-kind J611 Steam Locomotive.

The Virginia Museum of Transportation has announced that attendance for 2012 increased by 32.6 percent. The VMT welcomed visitors not only from the Roanoke and New River Valleys, but also from every state, the District of Columbia as well as Puerto Rico and 49 other countries.

The museum houses the famous Norfolk & Western Class J 611 and the Norfolk & Western Class A 1218 locomotives as well as many other forms of transportation.

“Our collections, especially the Class J 611 and the Class A 1218 locomotives, are known throughout the world,” said Beverly T. Fitzpatrick, Jr., Executive Director of the VMT. “They come to Roanoke to see the powerful locomotives, rolling rail stock and other exhibits up close. Our locomotive exhibits cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.”

In the past, the transportation industry has been the major driver of Roanoke’s economic success. Today, the iconic collections at the Museum are contributing to modern-day economic success for the city and the region.

In 2012, attendance by citizens living within the Roanoke Metropolitan Statistical Area grew by almost 10,000 visitors. Because of the Museum’s location, many of the Museum’s local visitors also shopped in downtown stores, visited the farmers’ market and enjoyed a meal in local restaurants.

But the biggest economic impact comes from the out-of-area visitors. In 2012, over 30 percent of the Museum’s visitors come from over 100 miles away. According to information provided by the Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Museum’s out-of-area visitors generate over $2.2 million in direct tourism spending. This represents significant tax revenue for local Roanoke Valley governments.

“With our continued growth, this Museum has the potential to bring in more outside tax revenue to local governments than any other Museum in Western Virginia,” Fitzpatrick says.

Tourism officials also believe that the VMT is one of Roanoke’s top draws for tourists. “The Virginia Museum of Transportation offers a sense of place to the Roanoke Valley,” said Landon Howard, president of the Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Roanoke is here because of the Norfolk & Western railroad, and the VMT houses iconic locomotives and exhibits that people can’t see anywhere else in the world.”

Fitzpatrick credits the increase in attendance to a number of important factors:

Strategic Plan: In 2010, the Museum implemented a strategic plan that outlined important milestones and goals for the Museum. “We asked the community what they wanted from the Virginia Museum of Transportation,” Fitzpatrick says. “The feedback guides us as we become the Museum we need to be.”

Wings Over Virginia Aviation Gallery: The Museum opened the Wings Over Virginia Aviation Gallery in November 2012. The Museum’s old aviation gallery was closed in 2006 after a sudden storm ripped the roof off the gallery and damaged the aviation collection. Using the feedback provided by the strategic plan, The Wings Over Virginia Aviation Gallery includes oral histories and hands-on exhibits that explain the science and technology of flight.

Community Support: The Museum was a recipient of the Taubman Foundation Sustainability Grant of $100,000 in 2011 and 2012. The grant allows the Museum to plan special events throughout the year and market the Museum’s collection through advertising and public relations.

Educational Outreach: The VMT widened its educational outreach in 2012 with school groups across Virginia learning from the Museum’s collection. The VMT’s collection of automobiles, busses, trucks, trains and aviation exhibits can help educators reinforce STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lessons.

Special Events: The Taubman Foundation Sustainability Grant has allowed the Museum to plan a full schedule of special events such as Grandparents’ Day, Train Lovers’ Weekend, NASCAR-themed events and the Candy Cane Express, the popular holiday event. “These events are becoming more and more popular,” Fitzpatrick says. “We find that once families experience the Museum, they become Members and come back throughout the year. This helps us build loyalty while families build special memories.”

Partnerships: The Museum has also reached out to other non-profits to partner when and where it makes sense. For example, partnerships with the Roanoke Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society (Roanoke NRHS), Roanoke Public Libraies and the LINK Museum have also helped fuel attendance.

“These partnerships have been a win-win for all the organizations involved,” Fitzpatrick says. “We believe that non-profit and cultural institutions should work together for the benefit of the community.”

Eventually, Fitzpatrick says, the Virginia Museum of Transportation would like to become the premier transportation Museum in the southeastern United States, drawing even more tourists to Roanoke, as well as becoming a source of pride for Roanoke and Western Virginia. “We have a long way to go and we’re not where we want to be,” he says. “But by working our strategic plan step-by-step, listening to the community and becoming a destination for families far and wide, we’ll get there.”