As we reported in this magazine last month, the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Indiana, has resolved the immediate financial crisis that threatened its existence. By restructuring its debt, the hall has made its expenses manageable. But the hall, which operates without an endowment, needs more financial support from the RV industry if it is to thrive.
The hall’s leaders are trying to persuade the Go RVing Coalition, which cut its financial support from $200,000 a year to $75,000, to increase that amount. They also have some other unresolved issues, including $750,000 owed on a collection of historic RVs.
Still, the picture is much different from a year ago when the RV/MH Hall of Fame was in danger of closing its doors. Revenue is meeting expenses, and the outlook for industry donations has brightened.
Bill Garpow, the organization’s chairman of the board, and Darryl Searer, its new president, say they are confident in the hall’s future and even have their eyes on expansion, though they have no intention of incurring new debt.
The Hall of Fame is located in a 56,000 square-foot building that opened in 2007 along Interstate 80 in Elkhart, Indiana, the heart of the RV industry. The building includes a hall honoring pioneers and leaders in the RV and manufactured housing industries, a museum of vintage RVs dating to 1913, a large library of RV and manufactured housing materials, a showcase for new RV models and exhibits from industry suppliers.
Garpow said there was never any question about the need for the hall. “I’ve never met anyone that wanted to see it go away,” he said.
But it looked like that might happen last year when the hall lacked the resources to meet more than $4 million debt, including a $2 million five-year construction loan that was coming due in mid-2012.
Originally, the RV/MV Heritage Foundation planned to build the hall without any debt, but while construction was under way an opportunity came along that was too good to pass up. RV historian David Woodworth, who had amassed a prized collection of vintage RVs, was willing to sell 30 of them, but the hall had neither the money to buy them nor a place to display them. Robert (Boots) Ingram, founder of Teton Homes, provided the solution: a loan of more than $1 million to buy the vintage RVs, and an interest-free five-year loan of $2 million to build a wing to house them. At the time, the plan made sense. But in 2008, the economy began its long slide downward, donations fell, and soon the debt became an overwhelming burden.
Garpow said that by the beginning of last year, the financial outlook was so poor that the foundation board had to go public with its problems. Since no one wants to throw good money after bad, the admission of financial difficulties could have made it even harder to raise money for the hall, Garpow said, but the recession had killed contributions anyway.
Garpow said various options were considered, including bankruptcy, but no solution was found until they renegotiated the debt through the generosity of the Ingram family and the cooperation of First Source Bank in Elkhart.
Darryl Searer, chairman of Ultra-Fab Products, a supplier to the RV and boating industries, was brought in as the hall’s president and chief operating officer, working strictly as a volunteer with neither salary nor an expense account. (The hall has only four employees.)
First Source Bank cut the interest rate from 7 3/4 percent to 4 1/2 percent on an $820,000 loan (which has since been reduced by early payments to about $700,000). The family of Boots Ingram, who died in 2010, not only restructured their loans, but also did it in a way that could significantly reduce the principal. The family deferred payments on their loans until the bank is fully paid in 2016, and agreed to cut one dollar in principal for each $1 that is repaid on schedule or earlier. That means that the $3 million obligation to the Ingram family could be reduced to $2 million.
Beyond that, the Ingrams have agreed to donate $100,000 if that amount can be matched by the end of August. Searer said he has lined up pledges that will meet that goal.
Searer is hopeful that the Go RVing Coalition, which promotes RVing on behalf of RV manufacturers, suppliers, dealers and campgrounds, will see the benefits of the hall and restore its support to its former level of $200,000 a year.
By 2033, the Hall of Fame should be debt-free. Searer said revenue is meeting current expenses, which run about $40,000 a month. The hall has a conference center that will generate about $170,000 this year from rentals for various occasions, including industry events, weddings, school reunions and political meetings. The hall receives about $120,000 a year from industry suppliers for exhibit space, though those contracts are up for renewal this year. Revenue also comes from admission fees, and during the summer as many as 15,000 visitors a month tour the hall and its museum.
Garpow said that even though the hall generates substantial revenue, it still needs donations. “I don’t think there ever was a museum and library that were entirely self-supporting,” he said.
As the economy recovers and the RV and manufactured housing businesses become more profitable, Garpow believes industry donations will increase.
Ways to enhance revenue are being explored. Garpow noted that there is currently no place in northern Indiana to house trade shows. The hall’s conference center could be expanded to handle large shows. In addition, the hall owns an adjacent 25 acres that could be paved and equipped for auto shows and RV events. The hall also holds a “right of first refusal” on another 25 acres that could become available. But any expansion would require money and perhaps some kind of economic development assistance.
For now, it’s enough that the hall has restructured its debt so it can stay open to promote RVing and maintain the industry’s history. At least now, says Garpow, “It’s possible for us to succeed.”
Write to Mike Ward, editor at RV Life magazine, 18717 76th Avenue West, Suite B, Lynnwood, WA 98037 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Find First Glance online at rvlife.com.