Calm Prevails After Pomp of Presidential Library's 1st Months : Simi Valley: The donors and dignitaries have visited and departed. These days, school tours are more commonplace.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joanne Meister guides 25 squealing third-graders past a slab of the Berlin Wall, a collection of Ronald Reagan's movie posters and a video of John W. Hinckley Jr.'s attempt to assassinate the former President. Finally, the group arrives at a replica of the Oval Office.

"The Jelly Bellies are right there on that side table," says Meister, a volunteer docent at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, which opened six months ago on a hill overlooking Simi Valley. The children huddle around the windows for a peek at Reagan's favorite snack.

When former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev visited in early May, the library was jammed with wealthy donors, visiting dignitaries and journalists. But today's turnout is a more familiar mix of schoolchildren and senior citizens.

In the gift shop, several visitors are browsing through the Ronald Reagan T-shirts, baseball hats, playing cards, postcards, coffee mugs, beach towels and "Chief Chef" aprons.

In the hall of presidential signatures, another volunteer, Darrell Hufford, is speaking in a somber tone. "Did you know that we have five Presidents who are not buried on American soil?" he asks.

As several visitors stare in astonishment, Hufford smiles and hits his punch line: "Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush."

The guide's quip was inspired by the historic appearance of all five living American Presidents during the dedication of the $57-million, 153,000-square-foot Reagan library on Nov. 4.

Today, halfway through its first year, the center--which includes a museum, a research center and storage space for Reagan's presidential papers and gifts--has settled into a calm, comfortable routine.

Museum attendance has been strong, but research activity has been sluggish. The economic spinoffs that some Simi Valley business people banked on have scarcely materialized.

Nevertheless, the community has warmly embraced its new neighbor. In recent weeks, local leaders have pleaded with reporters to call Simi Valley the home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library--not the home of the Rodney G. King beating trial.

"The first six months have been a fantastic experience," said Ralph C. Bledsoe, director of the library. "I'm very pleased with the warm reception by the community and by the people who come here. I'm happy to see that when they leave here, they have a different attitude about the presidency and where it fits in."

When asked to name the most serious glitch since opening day, Bledsoe talked about wooden benches. Elderly visitors had complained, he said, that there were too few places to sit down and rest while touring the museum.

More benches were promptly ordered.

"I would say the first year will be spent shaking down a little bit as we see the cycle of visitors coming here," Bledsoe said. "We have no idea what it's going to be like during the summer."

Presidential libraries traditionally draw large crowds during their first months, and the Reagan library has been no exception. By the end of April, 207,000 people had visited the library, said Bledsoe, who anticipates attendance soon will taper off to 20,000 visitors per month.

The Reagan site is one of nine presidential libraries operated by the National Archives and Records Administration.

To compare attendance figures, the Reagan library reported 190,067 visitors between October, 1991, and the end of March. It was the heaviest turnout to any of the presidential libraries during this period, archivists said.

In second place was the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Tex., with 160,033 visitors. Each of the remaining libraries had fewer than 72,000 visitors during this period.

The Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, which opened in July, 1990, is not an official presidential library. Nixon decided to retain control of the facility, which is run by his private foundation.

Nixon library spokesman Kevin Cartwright said the museum, like Disneyland and other Orange County attractions, does not make public its attendance figures.

Not surprisingly, the Reagan museum focuses mainly on the man's achievements. The Iran-Contra scandal gets scant mention in one exhibit. Bledsoe said he refers anyone who wants to know more about the scandal to the library's research room.

The museum continues to draw the Reagan faithful. A few visitors interviewed on a recent afternoon had no complaints about the museum. "I'm very impressed," said John Balich, 40, a firefighter who lives in Simi Valley. "It certainly stirs up some feelings of patriotism.

"I just think he was a great leader. I think his policies were successful. Some of the difficulties we're having now came from abandoning those policies."

Gene Carman, a retiree from Kankakee, Ill., who "never did vote for him," enjoyed the Reagan museum nonetheless. "It's very nice--a lot of history here and a lot of good entertainment," Carman said.

While attendance has been strong, Bledsoe hopes more scholars will begin to use the library. So far, fewer than 100 projects have been launched.

"In presidential libraries, your research community does not start flocking to your facility until more records are opened," Bledsoe said.

The library houses about 50 million pages from Reagan's White House years. Under federal law, most White House papers can be kept secret for up to 12 years after a president leaves office. Documents pertaining to national security or other sensitive matters can be kept under wraps for a generation or more.

About 6.3 million pages from the Reagan years are now open to review, most of them unsolicited letters to Reagan during his years in the White House. Another 432,000 pages will be made public at the end of May.

When material relating to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe is declassified, there may be a rush to review it, Bledsoe said. But for now, he said, some researchers will not begin a project if they do not have access to all of the papers they need.

Sheldon Kamieniecki, vice chairman of the political science department at USC, believes scholars may have other reasons for shying away from the Reagan library.

"Historically, there's not much interest," Kamieniecki said. "We just had eight years of Reagan. Some people may think it's too new to look at. . . . There was a lot of disenchantment toward the end with Reagan, and I think it's hard for scholars to look at that kind of presidency.

"Everybody's bashing him, so there's nothing new in doing that. I think scholars tend to gravitate to presidencies that are more interesting."

The USC professor also believes the library is not easily accessible to Los Angeles-based scholars. Kamieniecki said he would not assign his USC students to do research at the Reagan library because Simi Valley is so far away. Several other presidential libraries are on university campuses, making it much easier to conduct research, he said.

But Jonathan Steepee, chairman of the political science department at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, does not believe the Reagan library is hard to reach, particularly compared to the traffic problems a visitor to UCLA and USC will commonly encounter.

"It's easy to drive to," he said. "I think it's easier than going to a large urban center because of the parking and freeway access."

Although he acknowledged that little research has been done yet at the Reagan library, Steepee is happy to have it in Ventura County. "My own specialty is the growth of California during the Reagan years, and I anticipate it will be a gold mine," he said. "It is a boon to local scholars."

Some Simi Valley business leaders expected the library to be a gold mine for them as well, drawing thousands of tourists and their vacation dollars to town. That bonanza has not appeared, however, because few Reagan library visitors stay overnight in Simi Valley.

"Our close proximity to the Greater Los Angeles area makes it an easy day trip for people," said Nancy Bender, executive director of the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce. "It's primarily benefited our restaurants."

Victor Kreis, owner of Jack's Restaurant in Simi Valley, said he picked his Madera Road location shortly after he learned that the library would be built nearby. The gamble has paid off. At a time when many Southern California restaurants have seen their revenues plunge, business at Jack's is up 20% over last year, Kreis said.

"We've had people all the way from Orange County and San Bernardino," he said. "They wouldn't have been here otherwise in a million years. We have about 10 tour bus companies that use us."

One of these is Torrance-based Main Street Tours, which puts together more than 100 day-trip tours annually for senior citizens. "Last year, one of our big sellers was the Nixon library," said reservations manager Laura Stuckey. "So this year, we put together a trip involving the Reagan library."

For about $26 per person, seniors get a bus trip to and from the library, a tour and lunch at Jack's. The firm has already run about 30 such tours, each carrying 40 or more seniors, and it has 15 more tours scheduled for later in the year.

"This year, it's one of our most requested trips," Stuckey said. "What the repeat business is going to be, I can't tell you. . . . When we revise the 1993 catalogue, we may put in a second stop. (The problem is) there's not a whole lot out there in Simi Valley to take them to, except for the library."

Because so few visitors stay the night, hotel managers in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks have beefed up their marketing efforts. They are proposing tours that would link the Reagan library with trips to Universal Studios, the Getty Museum or perhaps Ventura County beaches.

"The room nights we anticipated haven't materialized," said Marge Moore, general manager of the Travelodge of Simi Valley.

Still, Moore doesn't regret having the Reagan library nearby. "It's a historical place, and I'm very patriotic," she said. "I think it's very good for the city."

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