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Salt Safari numbers not what was anticipated by museum

Published on -8/4/2014, 8:47 AM

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By Tim Schrag

The Hutchinson News

With summer temperatures climbing back into the upper 90s, Strataca's 60-degree climate becomes more and more appealing.

That heat of summer brought more than 600 patrons to tour the salt museum's exhibits earlier this month.

Director of Operations Gayle Farrell said museum attendance, like many attractions, fluctuates by season and day of the week, ranging from 50 on a subzero winter day to 600 on a warm summer day.

"June and July are our busiest months, and the week of spring break for Wichita school district has always been our biggest week," she said.

June typically brings in 6,000 to 6,500 visitors, Farrell said, and July anywhere between 8,500 and 9,500. Not counted in attendance are overnight events, she said, such as camp outs for scout groups. Since it opened in May 2007, annual attendance has averaged around 55,000, but Farrell believes the museum can do better.

"Our annual attendance has not been increasing at the rate we had hoped," she said. "Our events have substantially increased in popularity and numbers in the past few years, in large part due to the fantastic job our staff does in coordinating and hosting them."

The museum has been out of debt since early 2011 and the only outside support it receives is 5 percent of a local 1/4 percent sales tax, which is about $100,000 per year.

Farrell said the museum's dinner theaters dubbed "Murder in the Mine" have been selling out since 2011. In fact on more than one occasion the museum has had to book an encore performance the following evening. The museum has also opened a topside gift shop to attract more people to check out their offerings without having to go below.

Since the 2007 opening, plenty of people asked for guided tours in the abandoned parts of the mine, and the folks at Strataca agreed. Last November, the salt museum began offering three-hour guided tours four times a month. Despite the interest however, Farrell said the number of people actually taking the tours has not been what they expected. Sometimes as few as two people attend a single tour.

"We've had more hikers in July, but it's also July," she said. "It's picking up, but things have been slower than expected."

Having not offered a full year of tours yet, Farrell said it is too soon to gauge what might need to be changed, but the museum will be evaluating that issue soon.

"We think it's a great idea," she said. "But maybe it's something we only offer in June and July. It's too soon to say."

Eventually the museum plans to offer a salt safari shuttle which would offer hour-long guided shuttle tours, but a start date has yet to be set. Extreme adventure hikers and geology students and professors have been the most likely people to take the safari, Farrell said.

Dave Unruh took the July group of eight past an area, roped off limits to Strataca patrons, to begin their guided tour of the abandoned part of the salt mine underneath Hutchinson.

"That's the great thing about Salt Safari, you bypass a lot of signs," he says with a chuckle.

Through Salt Safari, museum patrons have the opportunity to explore a place where time has essentially stood still since the 1950s. Tracks and footprints left in the salt 55 years ago are still visible today. Piles of garbage abandoned by the miners lie unattended and, for the most part, fully intact, offering a glimpse into the past. The price of a bag of potato chips was 10 cents. The Hershey's candy bar wrapper hasn't really changed all that much. Rosemary Clooney was a big star, and Jerry Lewis looked like a teenager. The Community Chest was raising money for the milk and penny ice funds. Police magazine offered miners a way to look at pinups.

"I'm always fascinated by the trash," Unruh said. "It's just some history over there lying on the floor."

Later along the tour the group stumbled on a device placed by the Atomic Energy Commission to determine the closure rate of the mine. At one time Hutchinson was under consideration as a dumping site for nuclear waste.

"It definitely highlighted the local history around here, especially the type of history you don't hear too much about," said Brandon Whipple of Wichita. "It's very unique. I definitely found more history than I expected."

Whipple and his wife, Chelsea, decided to take the tour to celebrate his birthday. Both were thoroughly surprised by what they saw.

"It really gives you a glimpse of what life was like in the '50s," he said.

Andy and Zach Fry, of Hutchinson, had heard about the safari and decided it would be a good father and son activity.

"I liked seeing all of the old stuff that was still down there, like all the Hershey bars and Snickers," said 14-year-old Zach. "I liked the Salt Safari more because you get to explore stuff that most people don't get to."

At the end of the tour, safari goers have the opportunity to take as many salt rocks as they can carry home. Zach examined many rocks looking for the perfect specimens to take with him topside.

(c)2014 The Hutchinson News

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