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Local museums pack economic punch

File photo of the ITOW Veterans Museum in Perham.

May is officially Museums Month in Perham.

City councilors proclaimed the designation at a meeting Monday in light of a statewide effort between museums, tourist agencies and other partners to promote May as Minnesota Museums Month. It's the first month-long, statewide celebration of museums in the nation.

A study just released by community economics researchers at the University of Minnesota Extension shows that the state's museums not only preserve people's heritage, inspire artists, entertain and educate children, conserve the natural world and capture scientific advancements - they also bring economic value to Minnesota.

The state's museums (there are 562 of them) had an economic impact of $674 million last year, according to the study. This figure includes the wages of museum employees, capital improvements, and $53 million generated by museum tourists.

Direct spending by museums also had proven ripple effects across the state's construction, restaurant, health care and real estate industries.

An estimated 1.7 million people visited Minnesota museums outside of their home regions in 2011, spending an average of $24.35 each, the study found.

Lina Belar, executive director of the In Their Own Words Veterans Museum and manager of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County, both located in Perham, said that $24.35 figure could be much higher. At a recent workshop she attended with Access Philanthropy, a Minneapolis-based philanthropic firm, she heard estimates as high as $100.

"Visitors come to town, buy something to eat, buy gas, maybe go shopping and spend the night at a hotel," Belar said. "Museums and the arts are always third on the list of top things tourists like to do, behind shopping and outdoors activities."

While the local economic impact is difficult to quantify, Belar believes Perham's two museums contribute significantly to the area's economy. 

The ITOW Museum, which is the only one of its kind in the nation, has brought in about 8,000 visitors each year since opening in 2006, not including many others who visit for special events like guest speakers and musical performances.

ITOW staff and volunteers have been trying to beef up the museum's national presence. They've been spreading the word through national tour organizations and publications, and expanding ITOW's online potential. 

Those efforts, Belar said, are starting to pay off: "Our mailing list is getting bigger all the time. We have had some responses from people who have heard about the museum from far away. One person fit a visit in from California while on a road trip."

But it's the History Museum, open since 1998, that really pulls people in from afar. Thanks to the museum's website, which is nationally recognized for its available content, people from as far away as Holland and Australia have discovered roots in Perham, traveling here to research their family trees.

Many of the museum's 600-800 annual visitors are from out of town. Some of those have spent weeks here researching and reconnecting with their pasts; some have even made this their vacation spot, returning to the area regularly to continue their family research.

"We get a lot of out-of-towners, especially in the summer," said Belar, "but also local people."

Both museums work with the Perham Chamber and are setting up informational stands to encourage tourists to visit other sites around the community. People often ask for shopping and dining recommendations, Belar said, which museum staff and volunteers readily provide.

Perham's museums are nonprofit public charities. Any profits made go back into the organizations.

For every dollar contributed to the museums by city taxpayers, another $12 is raised through outside sources, according to Belar. These include grants, donations, state and federal funding and money generated through the ITOW thrift store. Some regular funding comes from the city, county and townships.

"We have a very lean operating budget," Belar said, adding that their profits are "probably a good representation of the midrange; between the tiny museums that are open once a week and the big ones like those in the Cities."

The economic impact of museums in Minnesota had never been measured before. The extension's study was conducted in partnership with the Minnesota Association of Museums and University of Minnesota Tourism Center.