Since the opening of the AACA Museum more than 15 years ago, the Museum of Bus Transportation has showcased a small fleet of transit buses, school buses, and coaches in the Hershey-based car museum’s basement, independent of its host but interlaced with it in many ways. That arrangement may soon change when the members of the bus museum vote this summer on whether to merge with the AACA Museum.
“As a board, we took the position that we’re still solvent, we have money in the bank, so let’s move forward and attempt to salvage what we’ve been given,” said John Oakman, the chair of the Museum of Bus Transportation’s board of directors. “Our interest is in uniting the two museums so we can continue and carry on.”
Oakman said that when he and a few other members joined the bus museum’s board of directors a few years back, they found a stagnant organization run as “a good ol’ boys club trying to impress the AACA Museum how great they were.” While the bus museum’s collection had grown large enough to warrant the construction of an annex located on the AACA Museum’s grounds, the museum’s membership had long been in decline, as had its funding sources.
“We quickly determined that the museum was on a simple course of failure — it was going to run out of money,” he said, noting the bus museum was consistently taking tens of thousands of dollars out of its savings to pay its bills. “There’s not many big donors left in the private sector, and unless we get some big grant or the museum is in somebody’s will, we don’t see it surviving.”
In January, the bus museum’s treasurer informed the board of directors that the museum had lost about $14,000 in 2018. According to the bus museum’s Form 990 filings, it lost money in three of the four previous years — more than $80,000 in 2014. Oakman told the board in February that at the rate the bus museum is currently losing money, it will become insolvent in about five years.
The 2011 flood of the Swatara Creek behind the bus museum’s annex didn’t help matters much. While insurance covered the cost to repair the damage to the buses inside, “they chose to piecemeal fix the buses and use the money to stay afloat instead,” Oakman said.
Some of the damaged buses have yet to be repaired, according to Dave Millhouser, the secretary for the bus museum’s board of directors.
In addition, while the bus museum’s initial 20-year-lease term was already prepaid when it moved into the AACA Museum in 2003, that term will come to an end in another four years, giving the bus museum’s board of directors a pretty firm deadline to decide the museum’s ultimate fate.
“There have been some people involved with the bus museum who said we should just move all the buses out of the museum and into the annex, but the annex is already filled, so we’d have to park the buses outside,” Oakman said. “And then who would staff the museum? We’re all volunteers, and we’re lucky to get 100 people to vote for the board of directors every year.”
Instead, Oakman argued, it makes sense to merge the Museum of Bus Transportation with the AACA Museum. Under such a plan, the former would dissolve and turn over all of its assets and equipment to the latter. The bus museum would afterward have one member on the AACA Museum’s board of directors and would still care for the buses in the collection and put on bus-related events via a specially created committee, similar to the AACA Museum’s arrangement with the Tucker Club of America following the latter’s merger with the AACA Museum.
After the merger, the AACA Museum would then sell off the annex and construct a new building on the AACA Museum’s property for the bus museum that would showcase the entire 49-vehicle collection and would be staffed full time.
“We went to the bulk of our high-end, key donors with an outline of the plan and got a positive response from all of them,” Oakman said.
Following a November vote to create an exploratory committee for the merger and to formally approach the AACA Museum’s board of directors, the bus museum got a similar response from its host.
“We’ve had a good relationship with them, and (a merger) will strengthen both of our financial positions,” said Jeffrey Bliemeister, the executive director of the AACA Museum. “They have a lot of passionate people in their group, so it’d be great to have them become a part of the body of the AACA Museum.”
That November vote was not without its controversy. Other members of the board of directors thought the bus museum should explore a merger with other museums in addition to the AACA Museum out of due diligence. That motion, however, got tabled at the November meeting and has yet to be taken back up.
“There are those who believe there are other avenues to pursue,” Oakman said. And should the proposed merger with the AACA Museum fail, proponents of merging with another entity can certainly run for the board of directors and pursue those options, he said. “Our true goal on this is to protect the integrity of the buses and to open the collection or keep the collection open to the public. We’re trying to be as upfront and transparent about this as possible.”
In the meantime, the bus museum’s board of directors approved the merger earlier this month, pending a vote from the full membership of the museum, as required by the bus museum’s bylaws. The ballots will be sent out to all 300 members as early as this week, Oakman said, with a deadline for receiving the ballots back by July 15. It will then be up to the AACA Museum’s board of directors to approve the merger. Finalization of the process should take another couple months.
“We gave the process 12 months from November when we talked about it with the AACA Museum, but we should be able to wrap it up by September,” Oakman said.
Should the members of the bus museum reject the merger, “then we’re back to square one,” according to Bliemiester, who said the AACA Museum would then start to look into renewing the bus museum’s lease beyond 2023.
For more information about the Museum of Bus Transportation, visit BusMuseum.org.