Visitor numbers are on the rise at Superior's Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center.

Executive Director Hayes Scriven reported the 2018 paid attendance count of 10,815 was the highest total the center had seen in the last 10 years. Over the last two years, center attendance has risen by 38 percent, or 3,000.

"Obviously, we're very pleased with it," said Terry Lundberg, chairman of the center's board of directors.

He credited the change to marketing, media presence and community involvement as well as fresh ideas from Scriven.

"He does think out of the box," Lundberg said.

One of those ideas launches next month. A three-day escape room experience will be unveiled Feb. 7-9, sponsored by Heritage Window and Door. Three different rooms will be offered, including a Cold War-themed escape experience crafted specifically for the center.

Scriven hopes that, like 2018's Stuffie Boot Camp, Roosevelt Live and Memorial Day Barbecue, it will give people one more reason to visit the center.

"Any museum can be more than just a museum," he said. "It can be a community center."

Although the Bong Center is focused on military history, its appeal is universal.

"I was told our major audience is veterans," Scriven said. "That's not the case."

Although about half are veterans, he said, the other half are younger families.

By investing in marketing to draw in visitors and providing quality, community-centered programming for local residents, Scriven said the center has increased attendance.

Since being hired in 2017, Scriven has spent a lot of time talking about the center. On social media, in press releases, online and in person, Scriven makes it a priority.

"What we need to do, what any museum needs to do, it talk about themselves," he said. "It's so important for a museum to talk about itself as more than just a small museum."

Lundberg has been on the center board since about 1990, long before it opened its doors in 2002.

"We started with a P-38 plane," he said. "Everything you see there has grown, the bulk of it from the local area."

The center continues to evolve. In 2018, it launched a student curator program and partnered with the Commemorative Air Force to offer a new exhibit. Scriven said the center plans to add two new tours this summer that will bring visitors more "up close and personal" to the P-38 plane and M-60 tank. Student-led tours and an expanded Fourth of July program featuring actors portraying all four presidents carved on Mount Rushmore are in the works.

World War II artifacts will be consolidated around the P-38 plane, creating space to introduce veteran-specific stories from Korea, Vietnam and modern-day conflicts by 2020. A Harbor Bar space is being built, complete with bar.

"Since we realigned our marketing and presence since Hayes has been here, we've grown each year - 2017 was better than 2016; 2018 was better than 2017, so a significant change in just how we're perceived in the community," Lundberg said.

That fits the center's mission.

"We do want to become a community resource," Lundberg said.

In keeping with that goal, the center announced Thursday, Jan. 17, that it would offer free admission to furloughed government employees for themselves and up to three guests for the remainder of the shutdown.

To receive admission to the museum, furloughed workers will just have to present a valid government ID at the giftshop.

In addition to this temporary offer, the center offers year round, free admission to active duty military and a discounted veteran admission.

The center is currently open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit bongcenter.org for more information.