Kellogg's Cereal City USA announced its immediate closure this morning, with officials saying the downtown Battle Creek attraction was failing to draw enough visitors or make enough money to warrant staying open.
“The board has made the difficult decision to cease operations,” said Cheryl Beard, chairwoman of the Heritage Center Foundation, which owns and operates the facility. “We make this decision with great sadness.”
The unceremonious shuttering came less than a decade after the downtown attraction opened to huge fan fare, promising national reviews, and optimistic attendance projections.
In 1986, the Kellogg Co. pulled something akin to Willy Wonka, shuttering its factories to visitors over fear of corporate spies. To fill the void left by the end of its popular tours, ground was broken on a cereal-themed attraction Dec. 19, 1996.
Cereal City USA, as it was eventually called, was meant to have everything a cereal nut could want: Interactive attractions, a cereal museum, a fake factory tour, and, of course, Tony the Tiger.
“It will be a land of wonderful, interactive experiences and entertainment for the entire family, as they explore the birth, development and global impact of the cereal industry, founded right here in Battle Creek,” Willie Calloway, who headed the attraction, said at the time.
Optimistic estimates projected the attraction might draw 400,000 people a year.
Instead, attendance faltered, and then plummeted, after a much-ballyhooed opening on May 29, 1998. According to the Heritage Center Foundation, the attraction has drawn crowds “well below” the levels needed to remain open.
It was always a bit of an odd sight: The big cutout of Tony the Tiger mounted on the building's rooftop, smiling down on an often-empty parking lot as cheery tunes - Burt Bacharach, anyone? - played from a clock tower.
Cereal City USA attracted 162,000 people in 1998, its first and best year. From 2000 to 2005, however, an average of 86,203 visitors came to the site annually. And 2006 may end up being the attraction's worst year, with projections anticipating an all-time low of 79,500 visitors, according to the foundation.
“The thing's been in the stew for about two or three years now,” said Jim Hettinger, who heads the economic development organization Battle Creek Unlimited. “What's happening was almost inevitable, barring any miraculous turnaround in the number of people attending.”
Andy Rathbun covers City Hall and local news. He can be reached at 962-3380 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andy Rathbun, Battle Creek Enquirer