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Pavilion set to change face, tone of libraries

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With the opening of the Air Force One Pavilion, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum will create a new dimension.

The pavilion could change the dynamics for all presidential libraries, which are often lambasted for being more about self-celebration than American history, experts say.

"I have to say the decision to bring Air Force One to Simi Valley was sheer brilliance," said Richard Norton Smith, the director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill.

Smith is known for revitalizing presidential libraries and has been called the "P.T. Barnum of presidential librarians."

The Reagan Library is reinventing the draw, he said, with its Air Force One exhibit, which opens Monday. While your typical presidential library patron visits to have an encounter with a particular president or first lady, or to experience what it's like to be them, the Air Force One Pavilion will draw aviation buffs and people who otherwise might not be interested in the library and museum.

If anything, Smith said, the move illustrates how presidential libraries can mature after opening and how they can do so without looking to Washington for help but to other libraries as hotbeds of experimentation and ideas.

"This has been a very dynamic institution," he said of the Reagan Library, "one that has grown and evolved and not just about the Reagan presidency, but increasingly addressing the presidency. And Air Force One is, needless to say, the frosting on the cake."

In Smith's opinion, the Reagan Library is becoming less of a memorial to Reagan and more like a classroom, and it will be looked to for inspiration by planners of future libraries.

And these golden times at the library will be felt in the community as well, as the benefits trickle down from the hundreds of thousands of extra visitors flocking to eastern Ventura County.

"It will obviously be an economic shot in the arm for the community," Smith said.

While there have been no formal studies done to forecast that impact, officials with the library, city and Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce assume that more people will visit and spend money locally. Brian Gabler, director of economic development in Simi Valley, foresees people coming to Simi Valley and buying gas, staying at the hotels, eating at the local restaurants and making retail purchases.

"There's going to be a certain amount of increase in tourism as a result of the Air Force One," he said.

To accommodate those tourists, the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce has remodeled its offices and in January will open a tourism bureau to disperse guides directing people to lodging and amusements.

"We are gearing up and creating a tourism bureau because we're expecting a big influx of visitors," said Leigh Nixon, chamber CEO and president.

Nixon said the effect on Simi Valley of the opening of the Air Force One Pavilion will be "absolutely huge."

It will be important, however, according to Jack Kyser, senior vice president and chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., for the library and Simi Valley officials to determine how to keep attracting visitors after the new facility opens.

"The key question is getting the visitors to come back," he said. "When people come to Southern California, guess what they think about? Hollywood. Your average tourist to Southern California, this is not your market. What you want is the more sophisticated traveler coming in to take advantage of the culture."

Depending on word of mouth

Melissa Giller, the library's spokeswoman, said the library is relying on word of mouth to attract crowds.

Luring traffic is always a challenge, no matter what business you're in, said Allen Kay, spokesman for the Travel Industry Association of America in Washington, D.C.

"Let's applaud the Reagan Library, because they know that as popular as the former president was, they need to keep looking for ways to attract people," he said.

Kay predicts the Air Force One Pavilion will do well.

"I'm certain that none of the other presidential libraries have anything like a former Air Force One," he said.

That's true, Smith said. "Nothing on that scale."

As the library has grown and continues to grow, Simi Valley has, too.

The library opened in 1991, when newspapers were still inserting pronunciation guides (pronounced see-ME) into stories for those unfamiliar with the city. That year, Patricia Havens, Simi Valley's official historian, said she expected Simi Valley would get on the map and that the Reagan Library would help get it there.

"I think it's already done that," she now says of Simi Valley's growth in the library's shadow.

Air Force One is showcased atop a Simi Valley hill, offset by chaparral-covered terrain cooked brown by Southern California's Mediterranean climate. The display, a dream of the late President Reagan, has become a reality.

Making the pavilion happen took four years and countless hours of sweat and imagination as well as $32 million.

"It's so amazing to see this aircraft gleaming and shining in all its glory," Giller said.

Giller believes Reagan would be pleased. She said his wish was simply to open the doors of his "flying White House" for everyone to step inside and see.

His comments to that effect were the springboard for building the Air Force One Pavilion.

Getting the airplane

Reagan's wish helped Mark Burson, then executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, get the library's board of of trustees behind him when he moved to scoop up Air Force One as it was being put out to pasture.

Recalling how the library ended up with the historical aircraft -- used primarily by Presidents Reagan, Nixon, Ford and Carter -- Burson said that from the day he started his job at the library, he was determined not to let it slip from the library's grasp. Especially not after the Reagans' Santa Barbara ranch was lost to the Young America's Foundation, a wealthy conservative organization focused on college students.

In 1998, Burson, who resigned from his position in October 2003 and now runs a Westlake Village consulting business, had just come on board with the library when he heard about the loss of the ranch.

"When I got there, I'm reading about the impending sale, and my only question is: 'Wait, how did we let this get out of the family?' " Burson said. "But the deal was done. And you look back and say, 'Wow, was that a missed opportunity.' "

But a chance at redemption was on the horizon.

It was 2001, and SAM 27000, the plane Reagan used as Air Force One, was still a part of the presidential fleet, being used as a backup for President George W. Bush.

In June of that year, Joanne Drake, Reagan's post-presidency chief of staff, got a phone call from Mark Rosenker, then director of the White House Military Office, who told her that SAM 27000 was to be decommissioned earlier than originally planned.

"I said, 'Can we be put on the list?' " Drake recalled asking Rosenker. "He said, 'Great idea.' "

Drake told Burson, who immediately began campaigning to acquire it.

"Joanne Drake calls me, and I said to her, 'Holy smokes, I am not going to allow us to make the same mistake twice. Tell them we want the plane,' " he said.

Burson said he then recommended to the board that it not only acquire the plane but also build a building to house it.

R. Duke Blackwood was then director of the library and has since added Burson's job as the foundation's executive director to his list of responsibilities. Blackwood said that he, Burson and Drake worked as a team in approaching the board, which met in late July or early August, Burson said.

"I recognized the opportunity to use the plane to tell the story of Ronald Reagan and how he changed the world and that given the missed opportunity of not acquiring the ranch, it was like one of these things, 'OK, fool me once, but you're not fooling me twice,' " he said. "This was a way to put an exclamation point at the end of Ronald Reagan's name."

Done correctly, Burson believed, the library could use the plane to tell the story of Ronald Reagan's effect on the Cold War.

The library wasn't alone in wanting the airplane, however.

Across the country, the Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware had high hopes it would get the historically significant plane.

The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport also wanted the plane but didn't have enough space for it, Giller said. The center opened in 2003 and displays those Smithsonian aviation and space artifacts that cannot be exhibited on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

In the end, the Air Force chose the library. Burson said it got the plane because the Air Force liked the idea of opening it to everyone.

Speaking from Dover, museum Director Michael Leister said he understood Air Force Secretary James G. Roche's ultimate decision to let the well-funded presidential library take the plane.

"It's the difference between somebody's kid going to the local community college and going to Harvard," he said. "The right thing to do is be happy they're going to the best place."

Paying for it

Once the library got the green light, officials beefed up activities to get new supporters, immediately launching a fundraising campaign to get the money to pay for the project.

As a way of thanking Reagan for his outspoken support of Taiwan's quest for democracy, the Republic of China donated $50,000 toward the library's 112,000-square-foot expansion that began after it was announced the plane was coming. The donation was only a drop in the bucket.

Four years after the project commenced, the foundation just collected the $4 million that remained to pay for the $32 million project on Thursday. Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens donated $10 million the day before his friend, President Bush, arrived in Simi Valley for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The extra $6 million will go toward the pavilion's endowment, Giller said.

Donations came primarily from individual donors, corporations and foundations.

The pavilion was originally expected to cost $12 million, but the cost rose to $32 million.

"When we looked into what was best to display the aircraft, we saw great things we could do, which cost more money," Blackwood said.

The costs were not driven up, he said, by the Hollywood set designers that re-created O'Farrell's Irish pub and made painted walls look like marble, nor by the Disney Imagineers, who helped with the flow, story and message. It was increases in the price of steel, weather delays and costlier-than-expected designs that drove up costs.

"The bottom line is, we have a magnificent facility worth every penny," Blackwood said.

The plane is on loan to the library by its owner, the U.S. government.

Air Force One facts

Days of service as Air Force One: 10,645.

Presidents served: Seven, most by any Air Force One plane.

Who served: Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush.

President who took most flights: Reagan, 211 missions.

First flight as Air Force One: President Nixon from Andrews Air Force Base to Chicago for Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, February 1973.

Last flight as Air Force One: Aug. 29, 2001, with President George W. Bush (replaced by a 747).

Retired: by Air Force to Reagan Foundation, Sept. 8, 2001.

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