by Hal Mattern
The Museum of Bus Transportation (MOBT) merged into the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) Museum Inc. on Jan. 1, a move that is expected to increase the visibility of the bus museum and strengthen it financially.
The MOBT, founded in 1994, has been involved with the AACA Museum since it opened its Hershey, Pennsylvania, facility in 2003 to house its motor vehicle collection. Using a donation from a bus operator, the MOBT paid the museum $500,000 for a 20-year lease to display its collection of historic buses in the museum’s lower-level gallery.
The lease ends in 2023, so by merging with the AACA Museum the MOBT is assured space in the museum without lease payments. The merger also will result in the MOBT getting outdoor space to exhibit some of its buses that currently are stored in a nearby annex that isn’t open to the public.
“The advantage of the merger for our museum is a lifetime facility to display our antique fleet and have it available to the public year-round,” said John Oakman, president of the MOBT. “Not having a permanent home has severely impacted our ability to raise money, particularly within the bus industry.”
The MOBT currently has a fleet of 40 historic buses ranging from a 1908 White to a 2009 battery-powered Proterra. Approximately a dozen are displayed at the AACA Museum while the rest are stored in the MOBT-owned annex building.
The AACA Museum, which was incorporated in 1993 and is a Smithsonian Institution affiliate museum, is dedicated to the preservation and presentation of motor vehicle history through innovative and interactive exhibits.
The museum displays beautifully restored or preserved automobiles, buses, trucks and motorcycles in lifelike scenes representing the 1890s through the 1980s on a cross-country journey from New York to San Francisco. As one of the largest automotive museums in the country, the AACA Museum features special exhibits that change several times a year and focus on a variety of eras and types of vehicles.
“The MOBT came to us earlier this year with the idea to merge their organization into the AACA Museum Inc.,” said AACA Museum President Hank Hallowell. “Both sides did their due diligence and concluded that we could make it work. We are pleased to welcome the members of the Museum of Bus Transportation to the AACA Museum and look forward to a productive future furthering our shared mission.”
With the merger, which was approved unanimously by the AACA Museum board of directors in November, the MOBT ceased to exist as an independent organization. The bus museum’s members, who voted overwhelmingly to merge, will become members of the AACA Museum. Their membership and contributions will continue to support bus-related activities.
Rather than having a board of directors, the MOBT will be structured as a committee of the AACA Museum. Oakman, a bus industry consultant, David Schmidt of Prevost and Randy Wilcox of MCI will lead the committee. Oakman also will have a voting seat on the AACA Museum’s board.
Most of the MOBT’s existing committees will continue to function in carrying out their bus-related missions centered on events, programs, education and fundraising.
The merger is expected to shore up the MOBT’s financial situation. Oakman said the bus museum has been losing $10,000 to $50,000 a year because its previous board wasn’t raising money. The new board that took over four years ago “tried to make it solvent, and we got close a couple of years,” he said. “With the bus industry shrinking and operators being bought out, we had to figure out how to sustain our museum.”
Oakman said there were suggestions that the MOBT dissolve, but the board decided that the merger was the solution. “The bus museum is not dissolving,” he said. “We are turning our assets over to the AACA Museum and merging. We are giving up our nonprofit status and rolling into their 501(c)(3).”
Jeffrey Bliemeister, the AACA Museum’s executive director, said he recognizes the value the MOBT adds to the Hershey attraction.
“Casual visitors are surprised and sometimes shocked when they discover full-size buses in the museum,” he said. “Buses are relatable, just like cars. Most people have bus stories and personal experiences. Even those who don’t can appreciate the ‘Forrest Gump’ and ‘Speed’ movie buses.”
Oakman said the MOBT has a talented group of volunteers “who have done a great job preserving bus history. We hope to keep them, and, with the added stability afforded by joining with the AACA Museum, represent the bus industry on a national stage, educating the public about its remarkable contribution. While the Hershey area is extremely popular, we are hoping that charter and tour operators will make us a favorite destination.”
Oakman also praised the MOBT’s donors, who have reacted positively to the merger, and said the bus museum will continue to rely on support from the motorcoach industry. “I can’t tell you how much ABC, MCI and Prevost have helped us,” he said.
One of the MOBT’s signature events, the annual Spring Fling, is on track to continue in 2020, with the AACA Museum staff helping with marketing and advertising.
“The MOBT was critical to the opening of the AACA Museum, and we appreciate their partnership,” Hallowell said. “We are happy any time we can strengthen our position and increase our ability to fulfill our mission of educating and entertaining the public relative to transportation history. The MOBT is a good fit in all of these areas, and we are pleased to have them as part of our museum family.”