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Transportation Museum makes its pitch for state agency status

A Norfolk and Western Railway car at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke
Jeff Bossert
Radio IQ
A Norfolk and Western Railway car at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke

For most of its nearly 60 years, the Virginia Museum of Transportation in downtown Roanoke has functioned as a non-profit entity.

It remains a popular destination, but backers say in order to compete with similar attractions, it needs advertising funds, high-tech exhibits, and help maintaining a more than 100-year old building - all potential benefits of state agency status.

Linda and her boyfriend, who just moved to Roanoke from the Baltimore area, are among the handful of visitors to the museum on a Thursday afternoon.

They just stopped by to get a feel for the area, and learn a bit about Roanoke rich railroad history.

“It actually makes a big difference. You know, I’m not saying I’m small minded, but if you don’t put too much mind to it, you won’t really care about it,” she said. “But once you actually start looking into the history, it’s like, whoa – you see how everything evolves, that’s what amazed me.”

Out-of-towners make up roughly 40-percent of the museum’s visitor base.
Mendy Flynn has worked at the museum seven years, and gets to see the visitors’ guest book now and then.

“I happened to work the front window one day, and it’s like the first four guests were from Dallas, Richmond, Kentucky – very spread out – and I usually ask – do you have family here? Just traveling, just sightseeing.”

Flynn said another recent name on that guest book was from Czechoslovakia. She said many just stumble on the downtown location, like Linda did, or others might seek it out.

“We’re on the map when you search ‘transportation history’ we’re the first that comes up.”

Flynn, who was just named Executive Director, says social media and word of mouth are essential. The museum has no advertising budget, putting what it gets from its many donors and admissions back into operations.

Vintage cars on display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation
Jeff Bossert
Radio IQ
Vintage cars on display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation

Legislation that would designate the Virginia Museum of Transportation as a state agency has been deferred to next year by State Senate committee, giving members of the General Assembly more time to study its fiscal impact.

While operating as non-profit, the museum still got state money once upon a time. That’s until a Virginia Attorney General’s ruling in the late 90’s said the museum no longer could without state agency designation.

For one former executive director, the site has been almost a lifetime passion.

"We've just got to do a better job of selling ourselves to the General Assembly." - Bev Fitzpatrick, former museum executive director

Bev Fitzpatrick also served on the board that opened the museum at its former location in 1962 – when he was a teenager.

“And of course, the nicest thing was getting out of school (at age 15) to go to those meetings with all those railroad executives,” he said. “My granddaddy was a conductor on the Norfolk and Western, and at the end, was the conductor on the Powhatan Arrow, which is their crack passenger train. My other grandfather sold trucks, buses, and cars, and ended up being Roanoke’s Studebaker Mercedes Saab dealer. So I think it’s a genetic problem. Even my mom flew, and got her flying license at 19 at Woodrum Field. So I think I couldn’t escape the family heritage.”

When he started as executive director in 2006, Fitzpatrick saw 12-thousand visitors a year. That number jumped to about 50-thousand when he left the job about a decade later. Over that time, he learned to barter, providing services like meeting space, or programs for schools when the museum couldn’t pay for things.

Fitzpatrick says some of that same creative thinking might help coax the General Assembly.

“We’ve just got to do a better job of selling ourselves,” he said. “We need to do our homework, we need to meet a lot of these people ahead of time, and explain to them the difference between the Virginia Museum of Transportation – and a museum that doesn’t have 40-percent of its people coming in from out of state.”

Fitzpatrick says approval of state agency could bring the museum up to $2-million a year.

Current Executive Director Mendy Flynn says lawmakers need to come to Roanoke.

“All of those people have not been to the museum,” she said. "They have no idea what we have here – the programs that we offer, the city schools. That’s one of our biggest things is field trips. And for a lot of those kids, this will be their first and maybe only field trip that year.”

Flynn says some changes are underway, like expanding the museum shop to those not already visiting.

But with more potential funding, she hopes to add to the aviation exhibit, and make things more interactive throughout the museum through QR codes, letting visitors learn more with their smartphones.

Jeff Bossert is Radio IQ's Morning Edition host.