Close to home diversions

01/23/2010 12:00 AM

01/22/2010 11:36 PM

The economic downturn has been a boon for Columbia's museums, zoo and historic homes as residents looked to save money on gas and lodging and have an adventure closer to home.

And many of the attractions are adding programs to keep those visitors coming back.

"The economy's catching up with everybody," said Jennifer Suber, spokeswoman for EdVenture children's museum, which saw a 13 percent jump last year in visitors - many of them from the Midlands.

The museum, in the Vista, also sold 10 percent more annual memberships last year, with many being given as holiday presents. "They're hunkering down for the long haul," Suber said.

Most local attractions got a staycation boost:

- The Columbia Museum of Art attendance rose 25 percent in the past year and recently had a record-breaking day with more than 2,000 visitors as the Ansel Adams exhibit drew to a close. It's membership rolls rose 66 percent in the past year.

- Riverbanks Zoo's attendance was up 9 percent and shot past 1 million visitors in 2009 for only the third time in its history.

- The State Museum got a 17 percent boost in visitors in its last fiscal year, which ended in June, and is on track to stay even this fiscal year. The museum also had a number of 20th anniversary activities.

- The Historic Columbia Foundation's traffic doubled in the past two years, and the number of in-town visitors rise 14 percentage points. Membership has spiked 10 percent in the past year.

Visitors might not be able to afford a trip to Williamsburg, Va., but they can spend the money to learn about the history in their own backyard, said Sarah Blackwell, director of programs at Historic Columbia.

The price of an annual membership to EdVenture for a family of four is not far off the cost of a night in a coastal hotel, between $80 and $160.

Chris and Chantsie LaTorre used to take long weekend trips to Charleston every couple of months with their children, Christopher, 5, and Carolina, 2. But with only her husband working and her staying home with the children, the Columbia family has cut back on travel.

The family joined EdVenture for the first time last summer and go there about once a month.

"You come a couple of times, and it pays for itself," Chantsie LaTorre said. "Lately, with the economy, we keep saying we're going to Charleston and we keep putting it off."

People generally travel within 100 miles of their homes during tough economic times, USC tourism professor Sirakaya Turk said, based on research he has done. Having high-quality attractions, such as a nationally recognized zoo, helps ease the pain, he said.

And an increase in attendance prompts the local attractions to keep things fresh by changing exhibits or adding events more often to keep people coming back.

The Historic Columbia Foundation, for example, has added more family-oriented activities and $1 admission every third Sunday, Blackwell said.

And EdVenture has added more daily and weekend activities, such interactive science programs for children and story time with a character appearance.

"We needed to have something new and exciting here all the time so if people want to come here two or three times a week, they don't get bored," Suber said.

"It forces you to be a little bit more creative."

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