Dinner, wine and shootouts at Cowtown

Gunfire and horse hooves provided the backdrop Sunday as people wandered the dusty streets of Cowtown holding wine goblets.

Not your ordinary Old West soiree.

But it's a sign of what has changed in the past two years, since the city of Wichita took control of daily operations at the once-struggling living history museum.

"The wine is a nice touch," said Riverside resident Joann Ryan, who was visiting along with Kathy Dittmer.

Two years ago, David Flask was hired as the executive director, and the changes seen at Cowtown are largely credited to him, said John D'Angelo, director of the city's Arts and Culture Department.

"I don't hear from people that 'The city is going to close you down' and that 'Cowtown is dying,' " Flask said. "Instead we are reintroducing Cowtown to people who haven't been here for a long time or to brand new people. And we are getting a good reception on what we are doing."

It's little things like the Wine Mosey on Sunday night, where tickets were $35 including dinner and wine.

The evening also included a live auction offering the chance to bid on a weekend excursion at a working Kansas ranch and the opportunity for up to six people to use local law enforcement's shooting range simulator.

Money raised went to fund future additions to Cowtown and to enhance its education program.

"I have a sense there is a greater respect in taking care of the buildings," said Dittmer, a longtime Riverside activist. "There has been a real effort to stabilize and improve the quality of the buildings. I am really appreciative of that. It is essential that the museums in our neighborhood do well. If the museums do well and attract people, our neighborhood remains solid and strong and does well."

Tim Holt, a longtime Cowtown board member, said the museum is definitely improving. He agreed with Dittmer in that the biggest change is the improved facilities.

"That's what we were hoping when we made the deal with the city," Holt said. "We knew we didn't have the finances that were necessary to take care of the grounds like they should have been.

"The city kept their promise and right away began correcting the major structural and internal electrical problems. There's still work to do, but it is an ongoing program and they've got a plan and will stick to it."

D'Angelo said he's pleased with the progress.

"People are starting to understand that the city is committed to making Cowtown succeed," he said. "We are seeing increases in paid attendance. And we are trying to diversify the programming so we can attract different age groups."

Attendance is growing: roughly 22,000 people visited in 2009, up from about and 20,000 in 2008.

The museum attracted 50,000 people a year on average before it began struggling in 2006.

It also helps, Flask said, that the museum is open to the public year-round.

"People are coming through even in our off-season — through all the cold and snow," he said. "We are here and surviving."