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Ripley's museum may open in Williamsburg, Va.

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Oct. 27--WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- Believe it or not, a Ripley's museum could open on Richmond Road after all.

Six years after the city's Architectural Review Board rejected a plan for a Ripley's Believe It or Not museum, the board is giving a warmer reception to a new plan.

A different group of developers is behind this plan, which calls for a more modest museum exterior than the 1999 plan. The new developers want to convert the abandoned Dakota Bay Grille building on Richmond Road into a roughly 9,000-square foot museum.

Ripley Entertainment Inc. which has museums in other destination cities, such as Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Gatlinburg, Tenn. is drawn to Williamsburg because of its existing tourist base. That base has also acted like a magnet to other unusual tourist attractions, such as Presidents Park, which opened last year and features 18-foot tall busts of all 43 U.S. presidents.

The Ripley museum planned for Williamsburg could open as soon as this June, said Ed Wideman, one of the new developers. Wideman is also the managing member of a group behind the Ripley museum in Atlantic City, N.J.

Ripley's Believe It or Not museums showcase oddities strange human feats, shrunken heads and replicas that depict unique traits, such as a pig with eight legs or a man with two pupils in each eye. They also relay interesting facts about physics, geography and other sciences.

There are 26 Ripley museums in 10 countries.

Hugh Williams, chairman of the Architectural Review Board, said members had a "very positive" reaction to the new museum's planned look during a conceptual review meeting Tuesday. "We indicated that it was consistent with our guidelines, it was attractive and we'd like to see more."

John Hopke, a Williamsburg architect who is designing the museum's exterior, said he expects to return to the board on Nov. 8 or Nov. 22 to ask for its formal approval.

The project site, across from the Williamsburg General Store and a Chili's restaurant, is zoned for enterprises such as a Ripley museum, so it's unlikely other city approvals will be needed.

Developers plan to change the abandoned restaurant's look from rustic to neoclassical, installing Doric columns and replacing most of its stucco with siding.

Wideman, the developer, said his group spent about $2 million to buy the building and will invest an additional $2 million in the property.

In 1999, the first plan for a Ripley museum in Williamsburg duplicated styles found on Colonial Williamsburg's Capitol and Governor's Palace. At the time, one Architectural Review Board member denounced it as "a hodgepodge of style and visual chaos."

The group of developers behind the plan said they found the board's reaction "insulting" and then looked at York County before abandoning this region.

Williamsburg "is an area that we've been looking at for a long time," said Tim O'Brien, a spokesman for Ripley Entertainment, which would sign Wideman's group as a franchisee if the museum becomes a reality.

"Every one of our museums that's been a big success has been in a destination travel area."

O'Brien said the museums typically have up to eight galleries, including one or two geared to local interests. Ripley Entertainment would likely include oddities from the colonial period in its Williamsburg museum, he said.


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