Presidential libraries seek tourists in theme-park era…Elvis to help

By Andrea Almond Associated Press Published August 22, 2004 SIMI VALLEY, California

There is a challenge facing the nation's 11 presidential libraries--soon to be 12 with the opening of Bill Clinton's this fall--as they compete for visitors at a time when many tourists would rather be riding a roller-coaster than sifting through presidential archives. And the Clinton presidential library has factored Elvis into its equation.

Although Ronald Reagan's death has led to a surge in visitors to his presidential library, attendance at the nation's presidential libraries during the past five years has declined about 13 percent. To reverse the trend, libraries are adding attractions, turning to more-aggressive marketing tactics and leaning on tourist attractions to promote themselves.

The Reagan library is adding a jet that served as Air Force One while Reagan was in office. The library also envisions tour packages that could include stops at Disneyland and Sea World along with a trip to the Reagan and Nixon libraries.

Clinton Presidential Library officials in Little Rock, Ark., plan on marketing the site with area attractions such as Elvis Presley's Graceland, two hours away in Memphis. Visitors also will be able to see Clinton's collection of Elvis memorabilia. "For all the libraries, tourism depends on how the institutions are promoted," said Jay Hakes, director of the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta. "Across the board, we need to be more aggressive."

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library has not needed any intense marketing efforts this summer. More than 110,000 visitors have poured into the complex northwest of Los Angeles since the facility reopened June 14 after a weeklong memorial to the late president. That is more than half the attendance that the most popular library--Lyndon Johnson's in Austin, Texas--sees in an entire year.

The Reagan library, which had had a 31 percent drop in visitors until the former president's death, expects to log an unprecedented 400,000 visitors by the end of the year. The goal of the libraries is the same: to keep the past fresh. Their strategies include rotating exhibits, having speakers and educational series and offering school tours.

The William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park has placed an emphasis on tourism. In addition to the Graceland marketing and Clinton's Elvis keepsakes, the $165 million library there will showcase an exhibit on the first family's White House pets--cat Socks and dog Buddy.

Also on display will be Mickey Mantle's rookie baseball card, which was a gift for the president. Presidential items will also be on display, including an exhibit on his impeachment.

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