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Morris addresses upcoming vote

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

Feb. 3's vote will determine whether the American National Fish and Wildlife Living Museum and Aquarium will be a part of Springfield in the coming years, said John L. Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops.

"If we get one less 'yes' vote than we need, the project will not happen here," Morris said.

On the positive side of that equation is that if the vote is favorable, "we will have a grand facility right here in Springfield that we can all be proud of," Morris said.

Morris first envisioned the fish and wildlife museum project about 2 1/2 years ago. The project has since gained the attention of city and state officials, and supporters in the private sector, such as Dr. John Moore, president of Drury College.

Morris first began thinking about a museum dedicated to conservation efforts in Missouri when Ken Cormier left a gift to Bass Pro Shops of his collection of artifacts and memorabilia from the sports of hunting and fishing, Morris said.

"We had a grand, wonderful gentleman in our ranks at our company in Ken (Cormier). He and his wife Lois spent about eight years traveling and collecting these treasures, and we were the (beneficiaries) of their efforts," Morris said.

Included in the collection were personal artifacts from professional anglers: rods, reels, boats and lures used by legendary figures in the sport, Morris said.

When he considered the significance of this gift, he began to consider its application, and convened a group of "leading museum people" from around the country, including representatives from Cambridge Seven, the group that has designed exhibits for Disney World and other famous attractions, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Federation.

"I asked this group how to develop this collection into something that would be meaningful in conservation education, and the result was that I discovered we had the opportunity to do something on a much larger scale," Morris said.

It was then that Morris began looking to examples such as the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, his favorite of the museums he's seen dedicated to conservation, because it incorporates Tennessee's own conservation history into the exhibits.

"It's my favorite because it shares the history of Tennessee's waterways and wildlife. It is my hope that this museum would include information about our Ozarks waterways," Morris said.

Tennessee's project cost about $42 million, and it has revitalized the city's downtown area. Morris presented information about the potential of his project to city leaders soon after meeting with leaders from museums. Almost from the beginning, John Moore emerged as a believer in the project. He became a "catalyst in a dynamic way" in the search for public funding for the museum, Morris said.

"I announced the idea to city leaders and leaders in conservation issues, and there was immediate interest," Morris said.

At that time, funding under the Missouri legislature's stadium bill was considered an option by some area legislators, but after researching it further, Morris said he discovered that wasn't going to be a viable funding option for the project.

After the two years following Morris' initial work on the museum idea, the project gained the interest of Mayor Lee Gannaway's Commission on Travel and Tourism, which deemed it the single biggest priority for increasing tourist traffic and therefore sales tax revenue in the city, Morris said.

House Speaker Steve Gaw also became interested, and he was the host of an informational meeting on the project to inform legislators of its importance.

"I got a lot of encouragement at that time, and later, when the enabling legislation passed to form the museum district, was even more encouraged," Morris said.

Throughout it all, the interest of others, the quest for public funding, Morris' focus has not been on increasing tourism or on increasing sales for his own business, he said, but on the conservation issue.

"My motivation has always been for conservation. It is my feeling that we have a real need for conservation education in this country and for a facility like this," Morris said.

A critical step in the project's development had to do with conservation: the decision by the Missouri Department of Conservation to support the museum project was gratifying, Morris said.

"I would have supported them no matter what their decision; I have that kind of respect for the organization, but I think their decision was indeed a great positive for this project," Morris said.

Morris' commitment to conservation efforts stems from a long family history of interest in hunting and fishing. His parents, who both grew up in Willard, were outdoorspeople, and his grandfather was "legendary" as an angler in southwest Missouri.

"This is my passion; I love to fish. I am lucky in that my favorite pastime has become a way of making a living for myself," Morris said.

The future of the industry depends on how we manage our natural resources, he said. "You can design new gear, develop a new catalog, but it's the experience of catching a fish in a public stream that is going to sell someone on the sport. It's important that those resources remain available to our young people."

Morris said he takes very seriously his company's obligation to give back to conservation efforts what they have given the business. His interest is not only in attracting new people to outdoors sports but in maintaining the habitat for wildlife, he said.

Morris has pledged $10 million in cash, land and artifacts to the museum, and he is aware that many people are suspicious of exactly how much cash outlay that will result in for him, he said. The land and artifacts will be appropriately valued, he said, and it will be at the discretion of the museum board how it will divide the $10 million commitment; whether it wants to take, for example, $2.5 million in land, $2.5 in artifacts and the rest in cash, or any other combination.

Morris said he has never really looked at the museum as a money-making proposition for his company. He said Bass Pro will share its visitors with the museum and vice-versa.

If the museum effort had been a ploy to make more money, Morris said, he would have applied the assets committed to the museum project to building another store.

"To me, the payback this museum will offer is many times greater than the financial payback from another store would be. I'm proud of what we've offered to do. Now it's up to the people to decide whether this will happen," Morris said.

Currently, the artifacts to be used in the museum are in storage. The museum is projected to have about 300 employees and to have an economic impact of $37.7 million to the state of Missouri and $15.8 million to Springfield.

The projections are the result of feasibility studies that used information from similar projects, such as the Tennessee Aquarium. Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World is currently expanding its existing store to be about twice its present size.

Morris said he hopes private companies will be interested in donating to the museum once it is built.

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