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May 6, 2007

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Sunday, May 6, 2007

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The Virginia Museum of Natural History set a monthly attendance record in April as thousands of people came to see its new building on Starling Avenue.

A total of 6,464 people visited the museum last month, Executive Director Tim Gette told the museum's board of trustees Saturday.

He did not mention the previous record.

About 30,000 people visited the museum last year. Because they think the new building will generate interest in the museum, officials have set a goal to lure 70,000 visitors in the new fiscal year that starts July 1.

If the museum attracts as many people each month in fiscal 2008 as it did in April, it would exceed its goal by 7,568 visitors, calculations show.

However, studies have shown the new 89,127-square-foot building has the potential to attract 80,000 to 140,000 visitors annually because its exhibits are of higher quality than those at its old location, the former Joseph Martin Elementary School on Douglas Avenue.

The new building opened at the end of March. Its $13 million cost was paid through the Virginia Public Building Authority bond bill signed by former Gov. Mark Warner a few years ago.

Gette said the museum has made "some very impressive achievements."?

The number of students visiting the museum seems to be growing. Last month, a total of 1,033 students participated in 29 programs there.

In comparison, a total of 493 students took part in 14 programs in April 2006, figures show.

"A lot of kids from North Carolina are coming to our museum" in school groups, some from as far as Thomasville, N.C., said Gette.

"We're closer to them than North Carolina's museum" of natural sciences in Raleigh, said board member Ervin Jordan of Charlottesville.

Among other achievements mentioned by museum officials:

"¢ There were nine rentals of rooms at the new museum building for various events since April 15.

While he did not cite an exact figure, Gette said there are even more room rentals scheduled this month.

"We said we wanted this facility to be a community meeting place" and it is becoming that, he said.

"¢ The number of museum members had risen from about 280 three years ago to 637 as of April 17.

Gette said the museum averaged two new memberships per day in April. He said the museum's goal is to have 1,000 members by the end of fiscal 2008.

The museum has several levels of membership at different prices. Members get privileges that other visitors do not have. For example, someone with an individual membership, priced at $40, gets a year of free admission and a 10 percent discount on fees for lectures and programs, among other perks.

Board member Daniel "Bud" Oakey of Roanoke cautioned museum officials against resting on their successes.

Staff and board members must make sure the museum constantly grows in terms of its attendance, as well as the variety of programs and activities provided to visitors, he said.