National Blues Museum downtown announces new opening date

Talk of the National Blues Museum in downtown St. Louis first went public in 2010, and buzz has swirled around it ever since.

Its originally projected spring opening has passed, but Rob Endicott, chairman of the board of directors of the National Blues Museum, says the approximately $13 million structure is in a good place as it now eyes a late-2015 opening. Financing is complete, and construction is set to begin in two weeks.

The museum, in the Mercantile Exchange District on Washington Avenue, will be 23,000 square feet, with about 16,000 devoted to exhibition space. 

Endicott says general public perception is that the museum is a great idea. But there's been difficulty “getting over this hump of ‘is this really going to happen?’ 

Unlike the Ferring Jazz Bistro (home to the Jazz at the Bistro concert series), which recently underwent a total renovation and expansion, "we can't say we're moving from one place to another or refurbishing a space," Endicott says. "But people have been great, and there's been a lot of positive interaction."

He says museum personnel have had conversations with the community, particularly those interested from a musical or tourism standpoint, and they’re looking to increase those talks.

Groups he says the new museum is working with include the Missouri History Museum, the Sheldon Concert Hall, the Radio Arts Foundation and the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission.

Kitty Ratcliffe, president of the CVC, is excited about the blues museum's potential for tourism.

“There are a lot of people who enjoy music as part of their travel experience,” she says.

Ratcliffe says St. Louis competes with other cities for convention business every day — cities that have undergone various renaissances such as Austin, Texas; Houston; and Nashville, Tenn.

“As their product in their downtown core improves, ours has to improve in order to stay competitive,” Ratcliffe says.

Hotels and restaurants are important, she says, but so are recreational activities. "It has to be more than eating," she says. "The blues museum will be a venue visitors can use for receptions, private events or for a great activity space."

About $5 million in funding for the project will come from tax credit financing, a mix of new market and historical tax credits. Endicott says $7 million is in place from private donations, which includes a $6 million investment by Pinnacle Entertainment. A ribbon-cutting has yet to be scheduled.

Endicott also says the design process, by Gallagher & Associates, is near complete. The company has handled similar duties for the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Miss., and the International Spy Museum in Washington.

Robert Santelli, executive director at the Grammy Museum and an early supporter and consultant for the National Blues Museum, says he’s confident the facility will benefit not only St. Louis but the entire country.

“It’s very gratifying to watch different communities step up to tell different parts of the story, and it’s time for St. Louis to step up and shine," he says. "The expectations are pretty strong.”

A $3 million Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, Tenn., has jumped ahead of the National Blues Museum with a projected May opening.

But to be successful, Santelli believes the National Blues Museum in St. Louis must meet a few criteria.

"It needs to become an educational resource for the city and area teachers," he says. "Understanding the story of American music is a good way of understanding the story of America."

The museum also needs to meet the expectations of blues fans across the country, Santelli says. “Blues has never been told in the degree that St. Louis will tell it. It has a responsibility to tell the blues story, and I’m very confident they will do that.”

Artifact collection won't be the focus at the National Blues Museum. Endicott says the museum instead will be interactive and technology-driven in its telling the chronology of the blues.

“We want to make the museum world class," he says. "We’re going to have something great that we can be proud of.”

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