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Long Live The Presidential Library!
Betsy Schiffman. Forbes Magazine

After Reagan is interred today, it is likely that the library and museum will generate millions of nonprofit dollars from admirers coming to pay their respects. For the surrounding city and services, being the home of a presidential library or a president's tomb can be a very good thing.

The William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park, in Little Rock, Ark., cost $165 million and is scheduled to open Nov. 18. It is affiliated with the University of Arkansas and will include the university's Clinton School of Public Service. Altogether, the center will be a sprawling 148,000 square feet, which contains both the archive space and a museum. The library is projected to have an annual economic benefit of $10.7 million annually and created more than 1,500 jobs during its construction.

While the presence of a library can bestow prestige on a university or community, it also means tourist dollars. During a good year, a presidential library may have an exhibit that generates a lot of interest and increases traffic through the library. But as presidents become distant historical figures in Americans' memories, it can be difficult to consistently stir up interest in their presidencies. The number of visitors may be very important, though, since many of the libraries rely upon revenue from admission ticket sales or gift shop sales.

For example, the Truman Library in Independence, Mo., receives about 30% of its revenue from admission fees and gift shop sales, says Deputy Director Scott Roley. In an average year, it receives about 110,000 visitors, but in 1997, when it had a miniature White House exhibit, that number climbed to 180,000 guests, earning the library an additional $200,000. Many of the guests, presumably, bought commemorative items such as the Harry and Bess Truman Playing Cards, at $14.95 a set.

Despite their ability to generate revenue, presidential libraries and museums are expensive to build and maintain. Television viewers may have noticed that the Reagan Presidential Library is not a modest affair. It is a massive, 150,000-square-foot, Spanish Mission-style building overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The library is estimated to have cost somewhere between $45 million and $60 million to build, and the land--100 acres in Ventura County, Calif.--was donated by a Los Angeles-based real estate investment firm, Blakeley-Swartz.

Since the first presidential library--the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y.--opened in 1941, they have become bigger, more costly and more extravagant. Each president (or president's foundation) is responsible for the cost of the land and construction of the library. The ballooning size of presidential libraries became rather costly for the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which pays for the ongoing operations of the libraries. As a result, in 1986, Congress passed an amendment to the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955, requiring libraries larger than 70,000 square feet to be accompanied by an endowment that grows according to the size of the building.

These endowments are created by private foundations that raise money from the president's political backers and supporters. For example, when the 90-acre George Bush Presidential Library and Museum was dedicated in College Station, Tex., NARA received a check for $4 million from the nonprofit George Bush Presidential Library Foundation.

The sheer size of a presidential library, however, can also frighten off potential hosts. Stanford University had been approached as a potential site for the Reagan library but declined the honor. Part of the Faculty Senate's concern was that the library would too big and too close to the center of the campus. (Their concerns may have been heightened, however, by an artist's rendering of the plan that was not drawn to scale and made the library look as though it would dominate Stanford's campus.)

There were other conflicts as well, though. The university also wanted academic governance over the proposed Reagan Public Affairs Center, which would have been adjacent to the library. The Reagan Presidential Foundation wanted the center to remain independent, and the two never came to an agreement.

Not surprisingly, there is already much discussion about where the George W. Bush Presidential Library will be located. So far, Baylor University, Texas A&M (home to his father's library), Southern Methodist University and the city of Arlington, Tex., are all said to be competing hard for it.

Although there are only ten presidential libraries (the Nixon library is currently privately funded and operated, and the Clinton Library is still technically called a Materials Project until his papers have been sorted by archivists), they differ in size, style and content, according to the president and the period in which they were built. As both repositories of history and monuments to the men who held the nation's highest office, they will continue to provide money to their communities and illumination of the past for years to come.

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