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Uncommonwealth: Sinkhole increases tourism at Corvette Museum, but hole may soon be filled

ctruman@herald-leader.comJune 23, 2014 

— For the Corvette Museum, with its giant skydome that resembles an 11-story yellow and red missile silo, it is the best of summers.

Some of its has to do with the heightened worldwide awareness that there is a Corvette museum, and that the museum is subject to the forces of natural catastrophe.

Much of it has to do with a deep, ragged sinkhole beneath that giant skydome and the damaged, red mud-glazed Corvettes nearby that had to be lifted from its depths.

The hole in the ground, created in the early-morning hours of Feb. 12 by the area's extensive cave and karst system — Mammoth Cave is only 28 miles away — is pulling in tourists from far and wide.

The numbers tell the story: In March 2013, 11,114 people visited the Corvette Museum; in March 2014, 15,762 came. In April, it was up from 18,201 in 2013 to 23,488; in May, from 11,869 in 2013 to 19,809.

Since the sinkhole opened, the area has been thoroughly inspected by engineers, its underground stability meticulously documented.

"You're probably safer walking around here than in the local Wal-Mart," said Katie Frasinelli, the Corvette museum's spokeswoman, who has had a very busy four months, fielding calls from around the world asking about the sinkhole.

Sinkholes are not particularly novel. Any YouTube voyeur can find compilations of videos of sinkholes worldwide accompanied by apocalyptic commentary about end times, or simply sinkhole voice-overs of the ain't-that-strange variety.

But sinkholes that open up and swallow vintage American road rockets? That's public relations alchemy.

And when disaster happens, tourism follows. You can take a $49 bus tour of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, which yielded death and horrendous damage. Japan's 2011 tsunami-hit towns began offering "tsunami experience" talks to tourists only a year later.

The Corvette Museum sinkhole, in contrast, injured only classic cars. As catastrophes go, it's so G-rated that the pair of little girls running and shrieking down a hallway after a hole visit is comical rather than tragic.

"It's something that is a little bit different," said Jason Swanson, an assistant professor in the department of retailing and tourism management at the University of Kentucky. "It's not something you can go and see in too many places. We're not talking about a cave. It's a museum where you can see the Corvettes and see the other thing that's completely unrelated, but also interesting."

Jon Lam, a tour guide for Bowling Green tourism, sat in the skydome area recently, fielding tourist questions that ranged from the general ("What is a sinkhole?") to the specific ("Are you worried about more sinkholes here?").

Brian and Heather Swoboda, visiting with their two daughters and son from Nebraska, described the hole and the cars in various degrees of disrepair as "crazy to look at, hard to believe."

Tom Mills, of Greenville, S.C., had visited the museum before 10 years ago, "but the sinkhole, that wasn't here 10 years ago."

"It was a ghost town," he said of the museum 10 years ago. "It will be great if something good comes of this, but it's pretty rough to look at."

Indications are that it might be a limited-time attraction: On Wednesday, the Corvette museum board of directors will decide what to do about the sinkhole after this summer. Frasinelli said that the trustees might decide to leave a small piece of the sinkhole — which is 40 feet wide by 60 feet deep — open, covered by Plexiglas, to remember the great crash of Feb. 12.

In the days immediately after the sinkhole opened, Frasinelli said, the media crush was such that "you could have thought that it was people landing on the moon."

Then she said: "We are not a sinkhole museum. We are a car museum. ... That was our biggest car display place in the whole museum."

Added UK's Swanson, "There's definitely an experiential element to tourism. Instead of just seeing a picture of the hole, you can go in and see the hole."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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