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Iowa baseball star's hometown museum struggles to stay afloat without his influence

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VAN METER, Iowa - Nothing brings former Cleveland Indians star Bob Feller's hometown of Van Meter, Iowa, together quite like Randi Van Rees and her succulent pork tenderloin sandwiches.

As the owner of "Fat Randi's" Bar and Grill — the "Fat" being her ex-husband, she jokes — the infectiously convivial Van Rees turned a dive bar into a destination spot for a town just south of I-80 but miles from anything else.

Fat Randi's doesn't much need a business plan. With a couple pickles, some mustard and maybe even an onion slice, those award-winning tenderloins sell themselves.

But when it comes to ideas on how the city's 1,100 residents can help save the financially troubled Bob Feller Museum, even Van Rees is stumped.

The museum shuttered its doors this winter because an outdated business model led to major financial issues. Foot traffic had dwindled to just a couple of people a day.

"I don't know what the town folk can do to get it back around. It's sad to see it go — and you don't want it to. But what else can you do?" said Van Rees while greeting customers during a packed lunchtime rush. "We thought about fundraisers. There's a bunch of different things we thought about doing. How do you keep it going?"

It's a dilemma that has troubled the town, the museum's board of directors and the Cleveland Indians for months.

Just three years after the death of the "Heater from Van Meter," the museum built in 1995 to honour the former Indians star finds itself gasping for life.

Although officials are working toward a solution they believe will best appease the city, the board and the Indians, the museum will likely never be the same.

The museum re-opened earlier this month with a scaled-down Friday to Sunday schedule. But the president of the museum's board of directors, Brandon Sawalich, isn't certain it can make it through the end of September without a more permanent solution.

"We want a sustainable future where we're not running around figuring out how to keep the doors open every six months," Sawalich said.

The irony is that Feller predicted the museum would expire three years after he did unless major changes were made.

The real issue is that Feller, who won 266 games for Cleveland from 1936-56 and was named to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, isn't around to help keep the lights on.

The museum stayed solvent for well over a decade by having Feller convince fellow Hall of Famers like Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra to visit Van Meter for fundraising autograph sessions. But the signings have dried up since Feller died in December of 2010. So have the memberships, dropping from a high of nearly 450 to less than 100. The $5 adult, $3 children and senior citizen admission fees don't generate much cash with so little foot traffic.

"The friendships are gone, the connections," Sawalich said. "The business model is out of date for where the museum needs to be after Feller's passing," Sawalich said.

The Feller Museum's status as the only free-standing building dedicated to a single baseball player hasn't helped either.

According to research by the Feller board, there are 16 baseball museums that are near a major or minor-league stadium, such as Ted Williams' Museum and Hitter Hall of Fame in St. Petersburg and the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum near Camden Yards in Baltimore. Most of the other facilities honouring baseball are in close proximity to steady foot traffic.

The Feller Museum might as well be in the middle of nowhere.

Though it sits just 20 miles from downtown Des Moines, the suburban sprawl that has enveloped Iowa's largest city ends abruptly with a row of townhouses about 10 miles from the Van Meter exit off the highway.

Folks still willing to make such a trip are getting harder to find.

Iowa resident Bill Sumpter recently brought three somewhat disinterested nieces from Indiana to visit the museum at the behest of their great grandfather, who remembered when Feller was one of the greats of the game.

"It was interesting. But I could see where it would be hard to get enough people to keep it open," Sumpter said. "It is sad."

But there is hope that some semblance of the Feller Museum can live on in Van Meter.

In late January, the city proposed taking over the museum and putting it in a trust. City administrator Jake Anderson said Van Meter could then move either its city hall or library into the existing museum and leave a portion of the building as a scaled-down memorial to Feller.

Indians senior vice-president Bob DiBiaso said that although the team has given "six figures" to the museum over time, it doesn't have plans to donate additional funds because that won't solve a business model that's become untenable. But DiBiaso also said that the Indians support the city's plan and are committed to maintaining Feller's legacy in Van Meter and Cleveland.

The Indians would hold onto much of the memorabilia the museum no longer had room for as part of a plan officials hope can be finalized by the end of the summer.

"It's an iconic part of the community's identity. The brick mural with Bob's face on it is part of our brand," Anderson said. "It was important that the city act."

If the Feller Museum could draw folks in like Fat Randi's does with its pork tenderloins, it might stay open forever. Though that's no longer realistic, Van Rees and her customers share the desire to see the town's claim to fame stay open any way it can.

"It's Bob Feller. It's small-town Iowa. There might be 1,000 people in this town, including the cats and dogs. But to have a famous person from this town, and you put a memorial up in his honour, you build this beautiful building, and now you can't support it?" Van Rees said. "Somebody, including myself, will come up with some ideas to do something to hopefully try."

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