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Sunday, July 23, 2000

A Question of Space

By Rene Romo
Of the Journal
    ROSWELL -- When the International UFO Museum and Research Center landed here in November 1992, few noticed. The media were largely absent. Few visitors showed up.
    But by 1997, aliens had put Roswell on tourists' maps.

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    That year, 50th anniversary festivities marking a purported UFO crash northwest of town in 1947 drew international media attention and thousands of visitors from around the world.
    The museum -- main magnet for the UFO curious -- occupies a former movie theater downtown.
    Aliens have been very good for business, so some merchants are understandably jumpy about a plan to move the city's No. 1 tourist draw to the outskirts of town.
    "We're all worried about it," said John Amador, owner of the museum's next-door neighbor, the Apache Gallery, which specializes in Indian crafts but also sells plastic drink bottles in the shape of alien heads. "They'll tear the downtown area apart if they move. Everybody's concerned because we all feed off that thing."
    Any move is still years away, if it happens. The museum first has to raise about $10 million to build a distinctive, 85,000-square-foot complex shaped like an Egyptian pyramid in a cluster of six smaller pyramids. The museum is considering a 25-acre site south of U.S. 70 in the largely barren plains about 10 miles from downtown.
    And at least two members of the board of directors, founders Walter Haut and Glenn Dennis, prefer the museum remain downtown, if possible.
    Haut was the then-Army lieutenant who, as public relations officer, wrote the now-famous press release announcing the Army had recovered a UFO in July 1947. The news was rescinded a day later and replaced with a story about a recovered weather balloon.
    Dennis worked at a Roswell funeral home in 1947 when he said Army officials contacted him about embalming techniques and requested child-size caskets.
    They founded the museum along with fellow longtime resident Max Littell.
    The relocation would "devastate the central business district," said Charlie Walker, director of economic development for the Roswell Chamber of Commerce.
    The UFO museum, director Carol Syska said, needs more space for an ever-growing number of visitors, more parking, expanded exhibitions and a budding library for professional and amateur UFO researchers.
    "We just don't have the room to do the business that needs to be done on a daily basis," Syska said. "We're not against having something in town, as long as it's something we can afford."
    In 1993, the museum's first full year of operation, visitors totalled 11,743.
    Then the 50th anniversary of the Roswell incident generated gobs of publicity in 1997. A Fourth of July festival featuring talks by prominent UFO researchers and a kitschy fair was covered by national magazines, major newspapers and the international press. Movies with Roswell or extraterrestrial connections -- "Independence Day" (1996), "Men in Black" (1997) and "Contact" (1997) -- fueled public interest.
    A teen-oriented television show, the WB's "Roswell," has kept the city's name in the national spotlight.
    The museum's attendance ballooned from 69,000 in 1996 to 192,100 in 1997 and has remained above 180,000 since.
    The museum might draw 200,000 visitors this year. It is easily the city's major draw.
    Visitors from outer space even out-draw the Space Center in Alamogordo, where historical exhibits on space exploration drew 153,500 visitors last fiscal year.
    "It's the Lourdes, the Jerusalem, the Mecca of UFO-dom," said local journalist Peter Farley, who believes Earth was "seeded" by extraterrestrials. "You think of UFOs, what do you think of? There's only Roswell. People are drawn here."
    Three new hotels have been built since 1997 and a fourth expanded, giving the city more than 1,000 hotel rooms.
    Lugging a $16 alien-themed floor mat outside of the International UFO Museum last week, 19-year-old Luke Seymour said he urged his family to make a stop in Roswell as they made a tour of Texas and the Southwest from their Mississippi home.
    "I've just always wanted to come here," Seymour said.
    E-mail has been beamed into the museum's Web site from Turkey, Indonesia, Belgium, the Philippines, Iran, New Zealand, England, Malaysia, India, China, Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Istanbul.
    Lawyer William Brainerd, Roswell's mayor when the museum opened, never anticipated the center would become so popular so fast.
    Brainerd said he arrived in the city in 1953. He never heard a word about aliens or a UFO crash until a 1965 function for past commanders of the old Walker Army Air Field.
    "It strains the imagination to think of anything extraterrestrial. But I know the UFO museum is good for business," Brainerd said.
    "It's like a natural resource -- you take it, you manipulate it, you add value to it, you sell it," Walker said. "Citizens in Roswell are finally starting to realize you've got to be able to use your resources, your myths, your legends, and be thankful you've got the opportunity."
    If merchants see the museum as a large cash register, museum staffers see it as place with growing national stature in the study of UFOs and related phenomena.
    UFO researchers George Fawcett and Robert Sabo early this year donated files with more than 50,000 items to the museum, including field reports of investigations of about 2,500 sightings or UFO encounters.
    The museum's library also includes 2,800 books; 150 videos; a commercial computer database with reports on more than 17,000 UFO sightings; and a separate database of more than 2,000 reports from UFO witnesses sent directly to the museum's staff.
    "It's kind of a balancing act between being open to the public and being a research center," said the museum's computer technician, Bill Weller.
    Dick Waggoner, the architect who designed the proposed new museum, said he wanted to create a building with dignity and seriousness, "not some roadside, three-headed snake attraction" like a giant, saucer-shaped building.
    Walker said he will work to keep the museum downtown. He has suggested that the city consider leasing the downtown convention center to the museum for its use.
    To Syska, the choice seems clear.
    "We've reached the point where we need to grow, we need to enlarge, because this museum is growing," Syska said. "A museum either grows or it stagnates."