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Kentucky Sinkhole a Mixed Blessing for Corvette Museum

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — When the earth opened under the National Corvette Museum in early February, creating a 60-foot-deep sinkhole that devoured eight landmark Corvettes, museum officials, Bowling Green residents, and ′Vette lovers everywhere reacted in stunned disbelief.

The news worsened as salvage crews plucked the buried autos from the chasm. A 2001 high-performance Z06 was twisted into an unrecognizable pretzel, shorn of nearly all its red, sheet-molded compound body. Another casualty, though less severely damaged, was the white roadster that had rolled off the assembly line in 1992 to become the nation’s one millionth Corvette.

Since then something unexpected has happened: The sinkhole became the museum’s hot new tourist magnet. Droves of travelers who might otherwise have had little interest in the museum and its four-wheeled exhibits began showing up to see the site of the natural disaster they had heard about on the news.

Attendance is up 59 percent since March compared with the same period last year, museum officials said, and sales at the museum shop and cafe are also showing double-digit increases. In May 2013, the museum pulled in about 9,000 visitors. This May, it drew more than 17,000.

The unexpected reversal of fortune has posed a difficult choice for museum officials, torn between continuing to keep the financially rewarding sinkhole intact or to fill in the huge cavity and return the showroom to its fundamental mission of displaying prized Corvettes.

At a closed meeting on Wednesday, the museum board chose to pursue a middle ground by voting to preserve a smaller portion of the hole, although members delayed a firm decision pending further review.

The plan calls for an opening of approximately of 25 feet by 45 feet and a depth of 30 feet with views into part of the cave. It could also include a dirt embankment where one or two of the cars could be placed for display, according to a museum news release.

That approach was favored over leaving the sinkhole as it is or filling it in and restoring the display room to its original condition.

“We have to look at creative ways to generate interest in the museum,” said Wendell Strode, its executive director. “It would be so much easier to just be a regular automotive museum with our Corvettes on display, but we have to think outside the box.”

The board meeting came after weeks of prolonged debate within the world of Corvette aficionados, including concern that the sinkhole, despite its surprise popularity as a tourist draw, was distracting from the 20-year-old museum’s core principle: to celebrate the history of one of America’s most storied cars.

“On the one hand it’s been really good for business, and the publicity it has gotten you can’t buy,” said Katie Frassinelli, marketing and communications manager for the museum. “But on the other hand, at some point the novelty of it will wear off, and we don’t want to be known as Sinkhole Museum forever.”

Distinguished by its yellow conical Skydome roof and 12-story red spire, the museum sits at the northern edge of Bowling Green, 60 miles north of Nashville. Another local landmark is the nearby General Motors Corvette assembly plant, which moved to Bowling Green from St. Louis in 1981.

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