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IRM's Vision to the Future
From Rail & Wire Issue 179, September 1999

by James D. Johnson, President Illinois Railway Museum

I have been writing this column for several issues now to help you, our friend and member, understand what we are planning in the future of the Illinois Railway Museum. We have talked about development plans, financing, and "pipe-dreams" all part of our attempt to remain a dynamic museum. As of this writing in early September, 1999, the new food service building adjacent to the old O'Mahoney diner is well under way with the shell virtually complete. (It looks great, I think!)

IRM has really grown from the status of a small museum with only limited income to a good-sized institution. Of course, we are not of the class that has millions of dollars in income to spend annually like the large city museums. But usually we seem to get far more "bang for our buck" than they do.

In fact we are seeing more permanence in our museum having a few full-time people on our payroll to handle things like building/grounds maintenance, equipment restoration, and the like, and we have also hired an Executive Director. We pay people to handle those areas where volunteers generally do not like to tread, including and especially all areas of revenue: cashier, membership secretary, bookkeeper, store, refreshment stand and admissions clerks. We have long done that.

We find that, like most of our sister rail museums, we face the fact that we are no longer increasing our volunteer base. People get older, or move, or raise families, or whatever, and because of the time from when the steam, old time streetcar and interurban eras ended (two generations in fact), there are very few people who are drawn to volunteer work because of a love for these old time trains. That is not to say there are no new recruits coming out, it is that the new people often only have a connection to present day railroading. There is nothing wrong with present day railroading. It is just that there is no longer the large variety of equipment types, operations, or indeed railway companies. So, we are at a crossroads whereby the Museum must have a steady source of income to make sure we continue to serve our public, and indeed preserve all our equipment.

This year, the summer of 1999, has given the Museum a lot to think about. Like so many other area museums, we had a decline in traffic to the tune of about twenty percent from our typical season of around 50,000 paid visitors. This would have been very difficult on our budget, except that we had arranged Thomas the Tank Engine to come to Union in mid-August. This event brought enough new visitors in one week-end to erase our deficit.

In fact we found out that we could handle a special event weekend where a large number of visitors came. Friday had an amazing 3,600 paid visitors, Saturday and Sunday each over 6,000!

But depending on gate revenue alone has now proven to be "iffy." Actual meaningful increases of number of visitors, and hence revenues, seems, unfortunately, to be difficult to achieve. And as in all businesses today, expansions of revenues is necessary to keep up with costs,

We must continue to ask you, our friends and members to help us in your contribution planning. We welcome all Designated (Restricted) Funds, but what especially helps is when you are current with your membership, and then give to the general fund. In fact when you do give us General Funds, the Museum can divert these to special projects in good years, yet retain them for general upkeep in more lean years.

So I urge each one of you renew your membership early, perhaps becoming a sustaining member. Buy a membership for a friend. And be sure to include something extra for the General Fund.

Jim Johnson, President

The recent visit of Thomas the Tank Engine proved that IRM can handle nearly 15,000 people in a single weekend. The event eased the current budget deficit, but strained our limited volunteer staff. Photo by Greg Heier

From the Rail & Wire Issue 179, September 1999

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