LeMay – America’s Car Museum Set to Open

Local media outlets were treated to a sneak peek inside LeMay – America’s Car Museum in Tacoma on Tuesday. The museum is 165,000 square feet of space and features a 3.5-acre outdoor show field, rotating galleries, meeting space, car storage, a café/restaurant, banquet hall and administrative offices. Construction for the past year has given drivers on I-5 neck cramps as they crane to see the odd, wind-tunnel shaped building. The much anticipated museum, with its spruce-lined interior (ordered from the same manufacturer of the Tacoma Dome) and wealth of classic cars, is set to open June 2.|

America’s Car Museum could be one of Tacoma’s biggest gambles. With roughly $60 million invested in the museum, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, including approximately $16 million from Nancy LeMay (museum namesake Harold’s wife), $3 million from Washington State and land valued at $17.5 million (donated by the city of Tacoma), to say there’s much at stake here is an understatement. Success is crucial – the museum is expected to pump an estimated $34 million a year into Tacoma’s economy.

That’s a lot of green for an auto museum, but the folks at the top are convinced of its potential. “The intention is to be more than a regional car museum,” said ACM’s president and CEO David Madeira. “It’s more important than that, it’s representing 100 years of America. “It’s not about ‘us,’” he says, pointing at his fellow staff members. “It’s about Americans. Grandpa had that car. I made out in that car…It has to be real and tell a story,” Madeira said.

Chief marketing and communications officer Scot Keller shares Madeira’s philosophy. One of the common questions he gets is “What’s the most important car here?” Keller says that’s not the point of ACM. He estimates the American population is roughly 10 percent car enthusiasts, so in order to maintain success, the museum needs to be an attraction to the other 90 percent. “Audience experience is set up to appeal to the heart, as well as the head.” Exhibitions and displays here are meant to evoke memories, proving in fact, as Keller says, “the love affair with cars is something we all share.”

ACM will have something for everyone. If you’re a hardcore car enthusiast, a $1.5 million Duesenberg may strike your fancy.

But mixed in with all of the high end autos are nostalgic gems such as a boat-sized 1983 Mercury Grand Marquis (if you weren’t around in that time period, the Wagon Queen Family Truckster from “National Lampoon’s Vacation” is an appropriate comparison).

Keller explains that this type of car is a rare piece of Americana, because no one cared for them once they were past their prime and not many exist today. There’s even a car from the Stone Age (yabadabadoo!!!).

Patrons can also expect high-tech F1 racing simulators, slot car racing and other interactive exhibits (no touching – interactive here means smart phone experiences via QR codes).

The museum has about 700 automobiles in its collection, with enough space on site for approximately 500 autos. Some are from LeMay’s personal collection, many are on loan. Aside from a large piece of LeMay’s personal collection, the museum plans to have some intriguing exhibitions ready for its grand opening in June: Classic Cars from the Prewar Era; Alternative Propulsion (everything form steam powered engines to diesel and electric automobiles); British Invasion; Indy 500; Ferrari in America; and a selection of 12 automobiles from Nicola Bulgari, the vice chairman of Bulgari, the well-known jewelry and luxury goods brand (Bulgari sits on the museum’s board of directors).

While LeMay is a name many in Tacoma recognize, Madeira is banking on it becoming a national brand with international reach. He believes there’s potential for it to be “Smithsonian in nature.” Chief development officer Dominic Dobson estimated that while many donations have been from local philanthropists (some $5 million in anonymous donations alone) donations have also poured in from individuals in more than 40 states and six countries. Corporate gifts ($1.8 million from State Farm, plus significant companies such as Boeing, AAA and Hagerty) have been a boon, and can only grow if the museum reaches its goal of 400,000 annual visitors. Dobson says LeMay will be a huge international draw, and he expects no dearth of visitors from car-obsessed Asia, Europe and South America. There are currently two private club spaces – one dedicated to members who’ve donated more than $100,000 (of which there are currently 57, and Keller is confident that number will increase), and one for members who donate $1,200 a month.

ACM will host several prestigious events throughout the year, including Kirkland Concours D’Elegance, the annual classic car show long held at Carillon Point in Kirkland. The museum will make full use of its show field with outdoor concerts, a classic motorcycle show and more. There’s even rumor of outdoor movies this summer in the parking lot.

ACM is going to provide plenty of buzz for Tacoma. It has the potential to become the type of attraction sorely missing from this region. It’s already been named one of the “8 Big Openings of 2012” by USA Today. Time will tell. What do you think?

LeMay – America’s Car Museum
Grand Opening June 2
2702 E. D St, Tacoma

$14 adults
$8 children
$12 seniors

$75 family
$50 individual

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