Ag center struggles to stay open

BONNER SPRINGS — The National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame is taking steps to boost attendance and avoid having to close.

The Bonner Springs facility, which next summer celebrates the 50th anniversary of receiving its congressional charter to be the nation's official agricultural center, considered going completely online amid low attendance and money trouble.

Instead, the center took some drastic moves to shake up its management, including the replacement of its board of directors in early November.

The center typically closes for the winter. When it reopens next spring, officials hope the center will be on the rebound.

"We're going to go after the future," said Frank Van Fleet, the center's newly elected board chairman. "We're going to show the American people what's happening in agriculture today."

One of the first decisions by the new board was to lay off the center's three full-time workers and three part-time workers. Among those losing their jobs was Tim Daugherty, the center's chief executive since 2007.

Van Fleet said the board wasn't happy with Daugherty's performance, especially given his $120,000 annual salary, according to the center's 2008 tax records.

Daugherty said he had tried to boost the center's profile and bring more people in the door but had had little luck. He said he hoped the new leaders had better success.

"It's been a fun, good experience," said Daugherty, a former Farmland Industries Inc. vice president for administration.

The center covers 165 acres just west of the Kansas Speedway. It features displays of 19th-century farm equipment and a re-created farm town.

It also recognizes American agriculture leaders, going back to George Washington and Squanto — the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian who helped the Pilgrims survive their first New England winter.

A decline in school field trips and the Future Farmers of America moving its annual convention out of Kansas City in the 1990s reduced attendance.

Daugherty said the center gets about 10,000 visitors a year, a third of what it needs, requiring the facility to eat into its savings to cover the $350,000 budget. The center has almost exhausted the $600,000 to $700,000 it received in a 2004 land sale and has seen its investments hurt by the recession.

The center, while recognized by the federal government, receives no public tax support.

Center officials acknowledge that one problem is that the facility focuses on the history of agriculture instead of its high-tech present and it will need to become more progressive to attract interest and visitors.

Van Fleet said he wants to approach major agricultural companies for help, possibly seeking naming rights or offering the center as a way for chemical, equipment and other industry leaders to show off their products.

He'd also like greater involvement on the board by local, state and national members of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

"We're going to take this thing national," said Van Fleet, president of the Wyandotte County Farm Bureau.