Decking the Halls

Institutions honoring illustrious deeds--or quirky interests--suffer ill fortune.
by | June 2002

The words "hall of fame" conjure up images of heroes or hobbies sanctified in shrines visited by throngs of devoted fans. But things never quite worked out that way at the Florida Sports Hall of Fame. The hall sits just off a highway exit north of Orlando, tucked behind a tourist information center, and it has struggled since the day it opened in 1990. Plenty of people on their way to Disney World stop in to gather brochures and use the restrooms, it seems. But barely anyone pays $3.21 to view exhibits on Arnold Palmer, Don Shula and 158 other Florida sports legends.

Twice in recent years the Florida legislature set aside $250,000 to keep the hall of fame afloat. And twice Governor Jeb Bush vetoed the money. The hall's finances are beyond desperate. It is so deep in debt that it had to cancel last year's induction ceremony. Now, it will almost certainly miss a July deadline to find a new site where it might attract more visitors and corporate support. "We'll have to put all the exhibits in storage for a little while," says Roger Strickland, the hall's president.

These are tough times for halls of fame. Since Henry Mitchell MacCracken built the Hall of Fame for Great Americans a century ago, scores of knock-offs have sprung up to honor the best of nearly every activity and craft. There is a hall for mushers in Alaska, polka stars in Illinois, bass fishermen in Arkansas and kite flyers in Washington State. State and local governments support many halls of fame in the name of tourism, especially when revenues are flush. But when coffers run dry, halls are viewed more as "pork" projects and are among the first items to get cut.

Such instability leaves the more obscure halls of fame scrambling from one venue to the next in an often elusive search for more visitors. The International Clown Hall of Fame, for example, moved from Delavan, Wisconsin, to downtown Milwaukee in 1997. Milwaukee paid for a feasibility study, and Mayor John O. Norquist actively promoted the hall. Nevertheless, a predicted explosion in visits to the clown hall never materialized. Part of the problem is that the hall wound up in the basement of a shopping mall that has been losing tenants. "It's totally unbearable," says executive director Kathryn O'Dell, who has her eyes on a more visible piece of lakefront property.

Even well-funded halls are suffering. Georgia has shelled out millions to open twin halls of fame in Macon, one for the state's music greats (in 1996) and the other for its sports heroes (in 1999). Compared with other state-funded halls, these 43,000-square-foot wonders are veritable Taj Mahals. The Georgia Music Hall of Fame recreates a Savannah jazz club and features an interactive theater where visitors watch videos of Ray Charles singing "Georgia on My Mind" or the B-52s pounding out "Love Shack." The legislature cut funding for both halls of fame this year, although it still subsidizes each to the tune of $800,000 annually.

Roger Strickland wonders why Florida won't cough up even a modest sum for its sports hall of fame. Strickland also has suffered from extraordinarily bad luck. After the hall's budget was vetoed the first time, he sought funding through the secretary of state's budget, which subsidizes other historic and cultural attractions. Strickland had scheduled a meeting with Secretary of State Katherine Harris for November 10, 2000, which turned out to be the Friday after the Tuesday that launched Florida's election imbroglio. The meeting was cancelled.

Strickland was a two-sport All-American at Jacksonville University and is himself an inductee at the Florida Sports Hall of Fame. Playing politics at the capitol, he says, has left him more worn out than the baseball diamond or hoops court ever did. But he vows to continue the fight for funding. "The very lesson that made me successful in sports has come back to haunt me," he says with chagrin. "You don't quit. Never give up. That feeling inside just won't let me walk away."