The fledgling Freedom Museum in Manassas, a display of 20th century military artifacts, would draw as many as 1 million visitors a year if coupled with a proposed Virginia Military Museum, a new study concludes.
The projected attendance could make the four-month-old museum one of Prince William County's largest tourist attractions, on a par with the Manassas National Battlefield Park, which drew the same number of visitors last year.
The George Mason University study, commissioned by museum leaders and the county Park Authority, which handles tourism, also notes that a Manassas-based military history center can draw from a rich base of Northern Virginia veterans and tourists who stay in the region.
"This validates what we believed," said Chuck Colgan Jr., the Freedom Museum's president and a Vietnam War veteran. "We would serve as a place for veterans to use as a home base while they're in the D.C. area."
Museum leaders are counting on the report's rosy projections to boost the project's appeal to state officials as the permanent site of a Virginia military history museum, envisioned as a 100,000-square-foot visitors center and exhibition hall. The Freedom Museum, now in temporary quarters at the Manassas Regional Airport, is on a short list of potential sites around the state under consideration by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
With the state's blessing, Colgan and his partners could secure the $10 million to $15 million they would need to move to a site they have identified next to the Manassas Regional Airport--26 county-owned acres and another 50 vacant, privately owned acres.
"The study is a great piece of ammunition for us to convince the state we can do what we say we can do," Colgan said.
According to Colgan, the project is envisioned as a 20th century Colonial Williamsburg, with an extensive exhibit of aircraft, tanks and other machinery spanning the century's wars. Reenactors would depict battle scenes. Lectures, conferences and military reunions would be featured.
The airport site has several advantages to it, the study concludes. One is easy access to the Broad Run station on Virginia Railway Express's Manassas line, which travels to Washington.
The other is its proximity to several tourist attractions with military themes, including the annex to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, slated to open near Dulles International Airport in three years, and the Marine Corps Heritage Center under construction in Quantico.
"The challenge is to try to capitalize on some of the visitors who come to Washington," said Mark Trice, the study's author and a research instructor at George Mason's Enterprise Center for economic research.
But the museum also can capitalize on a growing number of tourists who book hotels in Northern Virginia rather than the District--now 36 percent of visitors to the area, the study says.
Without the backing of a larger, statewide museum, the Freedom Museum's prospects as a solely local entity seem dim.
"The sum of the two are greater than the whole," Trice said.
Of the museum's 13,000 visitors since its opening in July, close to 75 percent have come from within 50 miles of Manassas, the study says.
The region's military presence has not been lost on county tourism officials, who are starting to conduct marketing studies of military reunions for retired veterans.
"It's a huge, huge, niche market," said Beth Robertson, the Park Authority's public relations manager.