The National Veterans Memorial and Museum, right, is across W. Broad St. from COSI, left; photographed on Tuesday, October 16, 2018. [Fred Squillante/Dispatch]

Vets museum will be a visitor draw, help bridge Downtown and Franklinton

Putting a national museum in a city that's not a national tourism destination can be tricky.

A common reaction when backers were pitching Columbus as the location for the National Veterans Memorial and Museum was: Why Columbus?

That's a challenge for Columbus and the museum.

But it's also an opportunity.

Officials are eager to attract new visitors to Columbus to experience the museum — and to encourage them to stay for other attractions. They are targeting 250,000 to 300,000 visitors a year, based on numbers other institutions in the region have seen.

"Having fresh tourism draws is important to get on people's list of places they want to visit, and to keep people interested in visiting or returning," said Amir Eylon, the Columbus-based president of the tourism research firm Longwoods International and the former tourism director for the state of Ohio.

"Something like this has such a broad reach. ... This could open the door to new meetings and conventions, military groups, veterans groups and others."

Connecting with complementary attractions such as COSI or the Motts Military Museum in Groveport also can greatly enhance the reach of the National Veterans Memorial and Museum, he added.

"Tourism Ohio is marketing a lot of 'trails,'" Eylon said, referring to promotions designed to get people to visit a number of breweries, coffeehouses, nature trails or other themed attractions. "There's a lot of military history in Ohio, so a 'trail' tying those things together would make sense."

That's music to the ears of Warren E. Motts, founder and director of the Motts Military Museum. Motts was on the advisory committee for the new museum. He says he hasn't had any formal contact with museum personnel about co-marketing or creating shared experiences, but he thinks it would be a natural idea that would benefit both destinations.

"Any time we can link with them will be great," Motts said.

Unlike the new museum, which doesn't include equipment such as tanks and guns, the Motts museum is stuffed to the rafters with artifacts. And unlike the Motts museum, NVMM will offer gleaming new indoor and outdoor spaces that may be used by everything from small military reunion groups to major national conventions.

Lt. Gen. Michael Ferriter, president and CEO of the NVMM, said pre-opening marketing efforts largely focused on word of mouth and social media networks of veterans groups. But he has ambitious plans to organize Honor Flight trips to Columbus to see the memorial, and to attract veterans organizations.

Ferriter, an Army veteran with 35 years of military experience, knows that NVMM is already on the radar of veteran groups throughout the region who tour military sites each year. He's also casting the net wide to pursue connections with other facilities and businesses: hotels that may offer NVMM tickets as part of a weekend package or discount deals with nearby institutions such as COSI.

Frederic Bertley, CEO of COSI, said he and his staff are excited to be getting a neighbor that will complement COSI and help create a true cultural district.

"We've been on this island in Franklinton," said Bertley, who joined COSI in January 2017. "Building a national veterans memorial next to a science museum, it increases exponentially the offerings for visitors in Columbus."

Within the next few years, city officials also hope to break ground on a major mixed-use development just west of the two museums that may add to activities and destinations on the Scioto Peninsula.

Developer Brett Kaufman, who is about to open the first phase of a dynamic mixed-use project called Gravity near the new museum in Franklinton, welcomed his new neighbor.

"When it's being done with the kind of purpose and quality that the National Veterans Museum and Memorial embodies, there's no doubt it has tremendous impact and spillover on everything around it," Kaufman said. "Plus, it's just beautiful to have in the neighborhood. Just walking or driving by, it's wonderful."

Brian Ross, CEO of Experience Columbus, said the new museum "obviously elevates the image of our community outside of Columbus."

The first glimpse of that should come around the grand opening, when national media members are expected to cover the event featuring retired Army Gen. Colin Powell as the keynote speaker.

Ross said Experience Columbus is working with the museum to draw groups outside Ohio to the institution.

"We've identified about 190 (military) service organizations. ... This obviously is a selling point that can't be duplicated, a point of differentiation from other communities. It's being very well received."

Of particular interest to tourism officials is the opportunity to get visitors to extend their stay to two or three days.

"Columbus gets 41.3 million visitors each year, but only 9.3 million stay overnight," Ross said. "Now, we're adding experiences that you can't do in just a day."