Boom to Bust and Back Again in Deadwood, South Dakota

Strategy: Balance Your Budget, Be Creative (More with Less), Enhance Your Product, Focus on Customer Potential, Know Your Customer/Product, Serve Local Community

Type of attraction: Museum/Historic Site

Summary: Life was really good for the Adams Museum & House in the early 2000s. The introduction of gaming to Deadwood in 1989 had enabled the Adams Museum to expand their budget and hire a professional museum staff.

Life was really good for the Adams Museum & House in the early 2000s. 

The introduction of gaming to Deadwood in 1989 had enabled the Adams Museum to expand their budget and hire a professional museum staff.  A restoration of the Historic Adams House was completed in the summer of 2000 when this site was opened as a new historic house museum.  In 2004, HBO launched the Deadwood series, which generated notoriety for the museum as the staff served as historical consultants for the show. This increased visitation to the museum as many visitors became fans of the TV series.  In 2005 the museum had the opportunity to acquire the substantial archives of the Homestake Gold Mine, the longest operating and the deepest gold mine in the western hemisphere.  Plans were made to open the Homestake Adams Research and Cultural Center (HARCC) as a third component of this growing and thriving museum complex.  An appropriate site for HARCC was identified, and the museum embarked on a $3.6 million fundraising effort with $1.5 million promised from the City of Deadwood's Historic Preservation Fund.  Then the HBO Deadwood series was cancelled in 2006, and in 2008, with $750,000 left to fundraise for HARCC, the economy started to do a nosedive.

Fundraising efforts faltered, visitation dropped off and the museum realized that they were facing a financial crisis of their own.  As part of a dramatic restructuring, the museum’s leadership made the difficult decision to lay off 3 full-time and 3 part-time employees.   Losing 3 out of 14 full-time staff positions meant that job descriptions had to be reinvented and staff had to undergo retraining in order to take on additional duties.  “It was tough for the employees to move out of their comfort zone and take on new responsibilities” notes Mary Kopco, director of the Adams Museum, “but they realized that at least they still had a job, so they all made it work.” 

The museum’s restructuring didn’t stop with staff layoffs and new job descriptions.  After scrutinizing visitation numbers for the Adams House (which attracts 14-15,000 visitors annually), staff realized that there were many days in January and February when no one would come for a tour.  A decision was made to close the Adams House for the winter starting in November 2009.  Although the house was closed, special tours were offered every other month.  In December, a “Decades of Christmas” tour featured rooms decorated for different decades of holiday celebrations.  February’s romantic Valentine Tour proved to be an especially popular event, and April’s Tea and Tour was also well attended.  In the end, the Adams House served more visitors through these special tours than they had been serving in the past by being open 5 days a week throughout the winter months.  Admission revenues were higher as well as the Adams House was able to charge more for the special tours.   Kopco observes, “We realized that in the winter months our primary audience is really our local community, and these special tours proved to be a more effective way to get our local community to come to the Adams House.”

Youth programs have increased in popularity in the past few years.  According to Kopco, “Our youth programming has gone off the charts.  With the economy being what it is, parents are looking for programs to put their kids in that don’t cost an arm and a leg.”  The museum offers an archeology field school and camp, an art camp, a history camp and a science camp.  To help control costs, the museum has found a creative way to train volunteer camp counselors.  The museum offers a field school for middle and high school students, charging $75 per student.   Students get $50 back if they return to volunteer as camp directors for the following two weeks or archeology camp.   This popular camp serves 25 campers a week and consistently has a waiting list.  Because there is a reduced rate for Adams Museum members, the camps have also helped the museum increase their membership.  In addition, a number of museum patrons donate scholarships.

The museum’s original facility, the Adams Museum, had never charged an admission fee, though suggested donations of $2 for children and $3 for adults netted an estimated $70-80,000 each year.  The museum staff increased the suggested donation for adults to $5/person (which was often easier than finding three $1 bills), and donations surged to $111,000 in 2009.  Kopco reports that donations in 2010 are currently on pace for a record $120,000. 

As for the Homestake Adams Research and Cultural Center, after not having much luck with grant sources, the museum’s director approached major corporations in the gold industry and vendors who had worked with the Homestake Mine in the past.  “We were fortunate that the gold industry is currently doing very well” comments Kopco.  Fundraising is now almost complete and a grand opening for HARCC is on track for May 2011.