New Conner Prairie CEO wants to raise its national profile

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FISHERS, Ind. (February 21, 2016) — The new president and CEO of a central Indiana interactive history park best-known for its children’s activities wants to make it a destination for more travelers by raising its national profile.

Norman Burns also wants to increase respect for Conner Prairie’s economic value in the Indianapolis area. The park in the northern Indianapolis suburb of Fishers has an annual economic impact of $33 million statewide and an $11 million impact in Marion and Hamilton counties, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1Svaep6).

“I think that, when you think about businesses in the greater Indianapolis area, quite often you’re thinking about manufacturing. You’re thinking about banks and corporations and the service industry,” Burns said. “I don’t think people really think about nonprofits being an economic engine for the community.”

Conner Prairie was created by businessman and philanthropist Eli Lilly in 1934. It offers historically themed indoor and outdoor experience areas throughout its 800 acres of wooded property. It features a section that’s a replication of daily life in an 1836 prairie village.

About 91 percent of the visitors to Conner Prairie are from Indiana. Burns, who started the job on Jan. 27, would like to see that balanced with guests from out-of-state and other countries.

“Conner Prairie is too remarkable of a site to just be locally visited,” Burns said.

Burns, 54, spent nearly a decade as executive director of the Maymont Foundation in Richmond, Virginia. The foundation is a 100-acre, 130-year-old estate built by philanthropists James Henry Dooley and Sallie May Dooley that attracts 500,000 visitors annually. It has a $4 million operating budget.

He succeeds Ellen Rosenthal, who retired at the end of January after 16 years at Conner Prairie, the final 12 as president.

Rosenthal is credited with significantly increasing attendance, growing by 150 percent to 360,000 during her tenure, and transforming it into an interactive adventure for visitors that incorporates learning experiences with math, science, technology and engineering.

He doesn’t foresee investing in a national marketing campaign, but hopes that incorporating three exhibits and events into Indiana’s bicentennial celebration this year will start to generate more statewide interest.

Burns also said he plans to brainstorm new ways to generate revenue and fundraise and help community leaders understand why Conner Prairie needs donations.

“A lot of people probably assume we don’t need any money, and that’s the furthest thing from the truth,” Burns said.

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