Franklin — When lifelong Franklin area resident Phyllis Bitner announced in September that the Smithsonian had selected the small community to serve as host of a traveling exhibit, she knew it would be good for the local economy.
But it wasn't until she attended a recent planning session in Topeka with the project's co-chair, Debbie Close, that she knew the true extent of what it could mean in terms of tourism.
"I think our mouths dropped open," she said. "It's definitely going to impact us more than we think."
Previous attendance records show the affect the Smithsonian had on hosting communities. Kaplan, La., (population 5,000) had 8,192 visitors during the six-week exhibit.
"They said they are usually lucky to have 500 visitors in an entire year," Bitner said.
Ruston, La., had 16,388 visitors during the six-week exhibit — about three-quarters of the city's total population of 20,546, which is comparable to Pittsburg's population.
Franklin, Kan., an area settled by coal mining immigrants in the early 1900s, has a population of 250.
Called "The Way We Worked," the exhibit the tiny town will be host to explores the stories of America's workers through photographs, audio and video clips, and hands-on artifacts.
It is scheduled to be open at the center from May 11, 2013, through June 23, 2013.
"This is going to have a tremendous impact not just on us, but on Pittsburg and the surrounding area; if someone's looking for a hotel and a place to eat, where are these 18,000 people going to stay?" Bitner said.
Linda Grilz, Crawford County commissioner and president of the Miners Hall Museum, described it as "unbelievable."
"We thought we needed to celebrate what the mining heritage has been to our area, and that was a year ago. We never dreamed we would get to this point," Grilz said. "When we applied and were selected, we were elated. When (Phyllis) got back, and we learned of the impact, my God what an economic boost to our area in so many ways."
The Miners Hall Museum, located at the Franklin Community Center & Heritage Museum and slated for a grand opening in May 2012, was selected as one of only six host organizations for the exhibit under the direction of the Kansas Humanities Council.
"This exhibit isn't going to be in Topeka or Kansas City. If they want to see the exhibit, they'll come here from all directions," Bitner said.
"I'd put everybody on notice: This is a big deal," Grilz said. "Get ready. Think ahead of time, it's a year and five or six months from now. It's an excellent opportunity for them to showcase what they have, what they do, the kinds of products we have to sell, an excellent way to promote our entire area."
Close, a longtime teacher, said the exhibit also will provide an unparalleled opportunity for teachers and students throughout the region, particularly when paired with a vast collection of online teaching resources provided by the Smithsonian at www.museumonmainstreet.org.
Girard and Arma schools already have indicated they plan to participate.
In January, the steering committee will meet to determine what can be reasonably achieved in meeting one of the Smithsonian's stipulations that the host site provide a companion exhibit that tells the local story.
"We haven't nailed down exactly what it will be, whether it will be just one, or a different one each week for the six weeks," she said. "There are so many related topics we have resources for, including the railway, with Watco being nearby, and coal mining, with all of the history and memorabilia we have."
Organizers also will begin lining out programs and guest speakers in the coming month, and have contacted Pittsburg High School, where students recently performed "Working," a portrait of American working men and women, about the possibility of abbreviated performances.
Organizers plan to hold a public meeting, too, to recruit those with talents in history, art, public speaking, planning and construction, and are looking for partners in the form of docents, businesses willing to place displays in their storefront for related contests, monetary donations and corporate, family or individual sponsors.
The museum also is accepting mining artifacts and photos for display.
"It will take every bit of a year to get it done," Bitner said. "But it's a once in a lifetime opportunity."