A massive sinkhole that swallowed eight prized sports cars at the National Corvette Museum has become such a popular attraction that officials want to preserve it - and may even put one or two of the crumpled cars back inside the hole.
The board of the museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, said Wednesday it is in favor of preserving a large section of the sinkhole that opened up beneath the museum in February. It happened when the museum was closed, and no one was injured.
What started as a tragedy has turned into an opportunity to lure more people off a nearby interstate to visit the museum, which struggled in prior years to keep its doors open, museum officials said.
"This gives us one more asset ... to be able to attract those folks that maybe just having Corvettes on display would not get them to come here," museum Executive Director Wendell Strode said in a telephone interview. "We think it will continue for some time to be of great interest."
The damaged cars toppled like toys amid rocks, concrete and dirt when the sinkhole opened up in the museum's Skydome. The cars carry a total value believed to exceed $1 million. The extent of damage varies widely from car to car.
The cars were eventually pulled out of the giant hole to great fanfare. Visitors can take a close look at the sinkhole and the damaged vehicles.
Attendance was up nearly 60 percent from March to the start of this week, compared to the year-ago period, museum officials said. Sign-ups for museum memberships are up sharply, as are merchandise and cafe sales at the museum. The museum sells sinkhole-related shirts, post cards and prints.
Museum board members considered three options for the sinkhole: fill it in, preserve the entire sinkhole or keep a portion of it.
They opted to maintain about half the 40-foot-wide, 60-foot-deep sinkhole, Strode said. There's a "strong probability" that one or two of the damaged cars will be put back in the hole, he said.
The project's estimated cost is $3 million to $5 million, Strode said. How much insurance will cover is still being determined, he said.
Plans are to leave the entire sinkhole and the eight Corvettes on display through the end of August, and construction on the "revised" sinkhole would then begin in September, the museum said. The museum is celebrating its 20th anniversary with an event in late August.
Jason Swanson, a University of Kentucky assistant professor in hospitality management and tourism, said keeping some of the hole is a smart decision.
"It's definitely a good thing to maintain some of that attraction that happened, to continue to capitalize on that," he said by phone. "Putting the cars down there is a great idea. It lets people see some of the actual damage that can be done by nature."
No final decision has been made on how many of the cars will be repaired. Chevrolet stepped forward to oversee restoration efforts.
The cars that took the plunge were a 2001 Mallett Hammer Z06 Corvette, a 1962 black Corvette, a 1993 ZR-1 Spyder, a 1984 PPG Pace Car, a 1992 White 1 Millionth Corvette, a 2009 white 1.5 Millionth Corvette, a 2009 ZR1 Blue Devil and a 1993 Ruby Red 40th Anniversary Corvette.
The museum owned six of the cars, and the other two were on loan from General Motors.
Sinkholes are common in the Bowling Green area, located amid a large region of karst bedrock where many of Kentucky's largest and deepest caves run underground.
The museum is close to where Corvettes are made at a plant in Bowling Green. The museum is situated an hour north of Nashville, Tennessee, and less than two hours south of Louisville, Kentucky.