Build It and They May Not Come

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Who doesn’t enjoy the passionate pursuit of a romantic dream? Kevin Costner’s successful movie, Field of Dreams, fed a new generation of dreamers in 1989 when it came out.


Many organizations plan their future facilities with the “Build it and they will come” idea in mind, but just because a facility works well in one city or town doesn’t mean it will be as successful in another. Some communities build a visitor center believing that is all that’s needed to draw visitors and their tourism dollars. Other communities go to great lengths, maybe even using taxpayer dollars, to build attractions only to find that those facilities fail to attract the numbers promised by the feasibility study provided by an out of town firm.


Ocean Journey opened in 1999 in Denver but sold to Landry Seafood Restaurants just a few years later at a huge loss. The attraction, built with bonds, never lived up to its promised attendance. Perhaps the thematic nature of a marine aquarium in Denver was a bit confusing with the Indonesian River/Sumatran tigers exhibit and Colorado River exhibits intermingled. There may be many reasons why an attraction fails in a given location, but usually the failure can be tracked back to poor planning and decision-making, which in some cases, would have suggested that the facility or program not be developed at all.


Here are five ideas to consider when dreaming up a new project that will be sustainable and of high quality.


  • Plan the thematic visitor/guest experience first, before the grounds, facilities and programs. Form should follow function and great architecture and landscape plans should be part of the story, not a separate story showing off the skill of the architects. It is challenging to overcome poor choices in design of buildings and grounds when operations start. Architects and landscape architects can help you make it all work together if they know what the overall experience should be.
  • Develop a Business Plan that realistically projects income and expense for several years, five or more usually. Be sure your financial resources properly support the business through lean times. It is easy and dangerous to assume a continual growth curve when cyclical attendance is more common. The overall economy has downturns your organization must live through.
  • Arrange all financing well in advance of construction. You sometimes see unfinished projects with a great concept drawing on the sign out front and progress toward completion has stopped. Nonprofits usually have a quiet phase of fundraising with major donors well before a public phase to insure enough funding is secured to be successful overall.
  • Hire expertise with real experience with similar projects. The architect who has designed 25 drive-thru banks may be locally available and have a friend on your board, but may not design a visitor center or nature center that makes sense for your planned uses. Bring in the appropriate planners, designers and builders for the kind of work you will do. There are interpretive planners, architects and landscape architects who have done many zoos, nature centers, museums and visitor centers and they bring great value to your project. Keep your operations and maintenance staff involved in the planning at every step of the way to ensure that design supports their ability to do the necessary work. If you’re a new facility and don’t have operations and maintenance staff yet, be sure that your planning consultants have experience with actually running a similar facility.
  • Be sure your analysis of competition and collaborators is honest and thorough. Ideally your new project has a niche in your community that no one else is filling. Try to identify opportunities to collaborate, not compete, with other organizations.


It’s great to have dreams and some amazing businesses arise from new ideas. But if you will plan, design and build thoughtfully, your organization may have a much better chance of long-term success.


– Tim Merriman





Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

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