Hopes were sky high when Akron clinched the deal to land the National Inventors Hall of Fame almost two decades ago.
But prospects soured quickly once the museum opened in a futuristic new building at 221 S. Broadway.
''No matter how much money we spent on it, it was a loser,'' said Robert Briggs, chairman of the board of directors for the Hall of Fame Foundation, which oversees four subsidiaries including the museum. ''We were too optimistic.''
The hall of fame closed the doors of the museum to the public in April. Now most of the building will become part of a magnet school for math and science students.
While the hall of fame's other subsidiaries will go on and it will manage a smaller museum in the building, the hands-on workshop and gallery to inventors has fallen flat.
No one expected gate revenue to pay the tab for Inventure Place, as the museum was originally called. But admissions plummeted rapidly and never recovered.
Consider the numbers: While the hall of fame didn't break down gate receipts for its first two years in its IRS 990s, the following years' reports show that gate receipts dropped from $360,180 in the third year to $136,875 last year.
While then-director Stephen Brand predicted when the museum opened in 1995 that attendance would reach 300,000 a year, the closest it came was 270,000 in its first year.
By 2007, attendance was about 40,000, hall of fame spokeswoman Rini Paiva said.
''At a certain point to be cost effective we cut back our hours open to the public,'' closing Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, she said. The museum always looks for ways to save money, she said.
Even though the hall of fame put $5 million into the original exhibits and more money later, the public apparently had little interest in looking at plaques of inventors who created the hollow fiber artificial kidney and the silicon solar cell or fiddling around in a do-it-yourself workshop.
''Today's kids have a very different expectation than earlier generations had,'' said Ford Bell, president of the American Museum Association in Washington, D.C. ''I was happy to look at dioramas, but they expect a screen, something that engages them.''
Dreams to make the annual induction of inventors into the hall of fame as glitzy as the Emmys or Oscars did not pan out, said Edwin ''Ned'' Oldham, the Akron patent attorney who was instrumental in bringing the hall of fame to Akron.
Seeing the future
By the time David Fink joined the hall of fame as CEO in 1999, the proverbial writing was on the wall.
At an Akron Roundtable meeting before civic and government leaders in July 2000, he already was defending his decision to focus on national programs at the expense of the museum.
''Almost all of the effort and expense which has been poured into this wonderful project has been done to develop the museum here in Akron,'' he told the luncheon audience.
''It's a constant temptation to divert our time, talent and limited development funds into local efforts, which are wonderful, but do not address our and your best interests.''
By 2002, the hall of fame had shed the Inventure Place name and was focusing ''on areas that raise revenue to keep this institution alive,'' Briggs, the foundation chairman, said.
That included promoting its earliest and most profitable subsidiary, Camp Invention, into a web of more than 900 camps in 47 states for more than 60,000 children last year.
It and Club Invention are the muscle that produced almost two-thirds of the organization's revenues in 2007, according to its annual report. By 2007 Club Invention was operating at 470 sites in 36 states for 33,000 children.
While the hall of fame steadily reduced the museum's expenses from $3.2 million in 1997 to $1 million last year, its other subsidiaries had to provide revenue to keep the museum's doors open — about $15.5 million over that 10-year period, according to Fink.
But it was all for naught. While the hall of fame had grown into a web of businesses with $17 million in revenue by last year, the museum lost $430,603, according to the tax form.
While Fink said the organization has not received any support from the city of Akron since he arrived, Mayor Don Plusquellic sees it differently.
He points out that he appealed to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for funds to supplement the museum's revenues.
Also, while the city's $6.25 million loan to the hall of fame in 1997 predated Fink, the city has twice tinkered with the deal.
In 2001, it agreed to forgive the loan in exchange for the hall of fame's share of Summit County's excess bed tax and for monthly lease payments from the hall of fame.
Then in July 2005, the city deferred the hall of fame's lease payments for 36 months and extended its lease until 2027 while continuing to pay down the loan on its own.
The hall of fame was scheduled to resume its $14,000-a-month payments to the city next month, but that won't happen.
Paiva, the hall of fame spokeswoman, pointed out that the city has terminated the hall of fame's lease on the building.
Over the years, the hall of fame has paid $1.5 million on the $6.25 million loan from the city, Akron Finance Director Diane Miller-Dawson said.
As for Fink, his salary has grown 72 percent since he joined the hall of fame — from $220,000 to almost $380,000 plus a $50,000 expense account last year.
Briggs said Fink has five times turned down a $50,000 bonus.
Briggs said the board of directors is solidly behind its CEO, who splits his time between his home in Glendale, Calif., and a rented home in Akron.
Even Oldham, the now-retired Akron patent attorney who came up with the idea of bringing the hall of fame to Akron, seems to approve.
''The ultimate goal we were after was this national goal, this broader based goal, and that has been to a very large extent achieved,'' he said.
''We've come a long, long way from the ideas we had to get started with.''
Those ideas now include a new life for the $38 million building, almost $27 million of which was funded with city, county and state money.
At Plusquellic's suggestion, the Akron schools are absorbing about 43,000 square feet of the building to supplement the $16 million middle school that it's building next door.
Meanwhile, the University of Akron, Akron schools, the city and hall of fame have formed a new organization called the Partnership for Invention and Creativity to convert the 32,000-square-foot workshop into a resource for students in that school and elsewhere.
The partnership is seeking grants from the GAR Foundation and Knight Foundation to fund renovations.
At the same time, the hall of fame has given PIC and Akron schools the right to use the hall of fame name and trademark and to market a science and math curriculum nationwide.
The hall of fame will receive royalty payments of up to 25 percent, but for at least five years must apply the payments to the local school and museum, according to the agreement.
Taking it apart
In the meantime, the hall of fame staff is dismantling the workshop and gallery that once inspired so much optimism.
Different pieces will go different places.
The inventors' plaques will be displayed at the national patent and trademark office for 18 months. The exhibits in the do-it-yourself workshop will be stored for now
The 50 full-time staffers are boxing up their offices to move somewhere else in the city by mid-August.
Some are duplicating the display on creativity and invention that they originally created for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, D.C., for an exhibit in what was once the building's gift shop.
The 2,000-square-foot space will be accessible from the plaza and open to the public at no cost.
The end result has a certain sorrow for Nichols, who served as director between 1990 and 1995 and 1997-98.
He was there in the heady days when Plusquellic compared the museum to a seed that produced a bountiful harvest and when the hall of fame architect James Polshek predicted that the hall of fame would lead to ''the reinvention of Akron.''
''We really thought we had something going,'' Nichols said. ''During my involvement there, I and the people who worked there gave it everything we had.''
He said the organization ''listened to everyone on the outside for advice.''
But if Fink had been one of their advisers, they might have saved a lot of money and time, at least in his view.
Last week he said he would have started more modestly — possibly remodeling a bank or other building into a museum and growing into a more elaborate facility later.
They dug themselves ''a really deep hole,'' he said.
''Akron is a great place to run a business,'' Fink said. ''It's not a great place to run a museum.''
Carol Biliczky can be reached at 330-996-3729 or firstname.lastname@example.org.