The Carolinas Aviation Museum is still looking for a new home. Since closing two years ago, plans have called for a new home to be ready by 2022. However, due to unfortunate setbacks and delays, it may not be reopened until 2023. Read more about the quest below.
Carolinas Aviation Museum remains on the hunt for a new home as plans to temporarily halt operations at its current space approaches. The museum, open for more than 25 years at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, disclosed earlier this year that it would suspend operations this summer where it currently operates due to a corporate entity moving into Charlotte. The Carolinas Aviation Museum closed two years ago, and previous plans called for a new home to be ready by 2022. The opening has since been delayed to 2023.
The aviation museum closed in July 2019, At the time, it occupied an unused, 40,000-square-foot private hangar, which was a temporary space. An airport spokesperson said federal regulations require hangars to be prioritized for aviation use. The museum moved out when CLT landed a private aviation tenant for space. That tenant turned out to be Honeywell International Inc. (NYSE: HON), which has since become a sponsor of the aviation museum.
According to the previous reporting, aviation museum executives had already begun planning for a new home. Honeywell’s arrival accelerated that process. Architecture and engineering firm Progressive AE and exhibit creator Freeman Ryan Design are helping with plans for the new museum. In March 2020, the aviation museum turned over more than half of its 11-person board, adding six new members. Those additions included a new board leader, Falfurrias Capital Partners Chairman Marc Oken.
At the same time, the aviation museum announced a $20 million fundraising campaign. A spokesman this week told the museum is engaging community stakeholders and forming a group to coordinate the campaign.
In February 2020, Honeywell became a sponsor of the aviation museum’s science, technology, engineering, and math education program. The collaboration promotes STEM learning and takes it into area schools and community centers.
The nonprofit museum, self-described as “Charlotte’s most uplifting destination,” generated annual revenue of $900,000 to $1.1 million during fiscal years 2017 through 2019, according to federal tax filings.
The aviation museum, through a local public relations firm, provided a general statement from its executive but scant details on progress toward reopening. “Carolinas Aviation Museum is excited to be moving forward with its plans to reopen in a new facility, tentatively planned for some time in 2023,” said Stephen Saucier, president of Carolinas Aviation Museum, in the statement provided “The new museum is envisioned as a dynamic place that inspires and elevates the next generation by telling our region’s storied aviation history, providing educational and cultural enrichment that connects students to the tremendous career opportunities in STEM-related fields.”
Attendance at the aviation museum during the last year it was open — 2019 — was 74,000. Its permanent collection includes the US Airways Airbus A320-214 jet of “Miracle on the Hudson” fame. In January 2009, US Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, piloting a flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte, safely landed the plane in the Hudson River. A flock of geese had collided with the plane’s engines and caused loss of power, forcing Sullenberger to manually land the plane. There were 150 passengers and five crew members aboard. Everyone on board survived — most with minimal injuries.
CAM disclosed earlier this year that it would suspend operations this summer where it currently operates due to a corporate entity moving to Charlotte — now known to be Honeywell International Inc. which is bringing 750 jobs to the Queen City by the end of 2024 — and needing the 40,000-square-foot hangar that the museum occupies.
Prior to finding out that it would lose the hangar space, CAM had already initiated a master-planning process to develop a future facility, Stephen Saucier, president of the organization, told the Charlotte Business Journal this week. Those plans were accelerated by a year or so.
CAM, a private nonprofit that receives its funding through a combination of membership dues, visitor admission fees, grants, and private donations, will remain open to visitors until July 14. It will then shift to a “museum without walls” concept with a focus on serving the community through outreach programming in area schools and in the community during the upcoming school year.
Saucier stressed that the museum isn’t shutting down. He said, “We are suspending operations here at this site, but the organization will continue …”. CAM currently has about 250 members. It has a 10-member board of directors as well as 12 employees and a team of volunteers.
“It’s our goal to retain our volunteer team and essential staff throughout our transition,” said Jessica Mallicote, vice president of advancement and marketing, when asked if any jobs would be lost as a result of the changes. The museum has created a new organizational chart to “retain and redeploy the organization’s staff wherever possible” during the transition period, she said, adding that “a critical component to the transition will be maintaining our brand in the community” through outreach efforts. “While we anticipate that some earned revenue will come from programs and outreach, the museum will continue to seek contributed income sources (grants, private donations, etc.) to compensate for diminished earned revenue streams and fund operations during our transition period until a new physical space is complete,” she said in an email to CBJ.
The museum, Saucier said, continues to work with CLT officials and consultants to find temporary housing on airport property for its aircraft and exhibits as it expects to embark on its largest capital campaign to date this fall. It currently has nearly 30 aircraft and exhibits on display both indoors and outdoors, which range from interactive cockpits, flight simulators, and historic artifacts.
Saucier said the organization is looking to raise $35 million for the new facility from a variety of potential funding sources, including the public sector, private individuals as well as foundations, and corporations. The goal is to debut that new facility in 2022. The museum has worked with Freeman Ryan Design, an Australian designer of museum exhibitions, on the development of a conceptual design for a future facility.
“Coming this fall is when we will get very aggressive about that,” he said. “Of course our concern right now is about our current audience and the relocation of the aircraft. We want to make sure our planning is solid. We’ve been doing a market and attendance analysis so we can know what the data looks like for the future facility. We need to make sure as we launch the campaign that we have a very clear understanding as best we can for what that facility will look like, what it’ll do, the impact it’ll have on the community — and then we’ll be more engaged to launch the campaign.”
The museum originally opened in 1992 — then led by volunteers — within a different hangar at the Charlotte airport, drawing in between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors a year. In 2010, CAM began leasing its current, larger hangar. The following year, the museum debuted the “Miracle on the Hudson” Airbus A320, whose pilot, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, in January 2009 famously landed the plane in New York City’s Hudson River after striking a flock of birds while taking off from LaGuardia Airport. The US Airways flight, carrying 155 passengers, was en route to Charlotte Douglas. Saucier called that addition a “game-changer” for the museum, which helped boost its number of annual visitors to 50,000.
Saucier said the museum is now closing in on 75,000 visitors a year and is heavily focused on community engagement, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, workforce development, and tourism. It served about 12,000 students in the past fiscal year. In 2017, the museum had revenue of $1.12 million and expenses of $661,910, according to Charlotte Business Journal research. CAM, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, ranks among the Charlotte area’s 25 largest nonprofit arts and science organizations.
Saucier said the museum is currently looking at a couple of sites for the new facility and intends to remain on or near airport property. “We’re working with the airport and the city of Charlotte to identify that and to study that site,” he said, adding that the goal is to find a 70,000-square-foot space that offers hands-on learning and audio-visual elements.”
Saucier said he envisions the future facility shifting away from a traditional museum format to more of an aviation/aerospace innovation center, focusing less on the past and more on the future, referencing drones and space exploration. “Museums evolve over time, and this is to be less about the planes and more about the community and connecting with economic mobility in terms of STEM education and workforce development, but also driving tourism and being a good cultural institution in Charlotte,” he said.
Saucier noted a looming labor shortage in the aviation and aerospace industry and efforts to improve economic mobility across the Charlotte region. “This museum is positioning its new mission to connect those kids to that explosion of opportunities in aviation. … The experience is not just going to be about history. It’s going to be about telling those historic stories to leverage the innovations of the future and to attract kids to think about their participation in these opportunities,” he said.