- Business and Employment
Hoppe remains under investigation
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Sculptor well known in several states
Missouri Attorney General spokesperson, Nanci Gonder, recently reaffirmed the attorney general's office is still investigating Fred Hoppe, the owner of the Veterans Memorial Museum in Branson, Mo. The investigation began in early January and comes off years of litigation involving Hoppe in several states.
Hoppe is a renowned sculptor and entrepreneur of veterans’ and dinosaur museums. He has commissioned pieces for various war memorials, and “Husker Legacy” and a large mammoth for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Hoppe credits his love of veterans to his father, who served in World War II.
But Hoppe’s somewhat celebrity status may also include courtrooms – he has been sued repeatedly in cases tied to his museums in which most have closed shortly after being opened. A Dinosaur Walk Museum in Milford, Neb., remains open for business, however, visitors say the gift store shelves are nearly empty. Also empty (of employees) is the convenience store just east of the museum, a business Hoppe was the registered agent for when it opened. The store has been closed for several months now after five to six employees quit at once. A sign hangs on the door, “Closed due to electrical issues.” Until recently, trash piled up around bins sat there for weeks. The store still has snacks on the shelves and drinks in the coolers that aren’t running.
One employee, who did not want to be identified, said the store manager, with instructions from Hoppe, recommended employees cash their paychecks at a nearby Walmart. That way, the checks would clear and catch up with bank deposits. Hoppe later confirmed in a taped interview that he wanted the employees to cash their checks at Walmart. It made sense to him, he said.
Calls placed to those associated in Internet searches on Hoppe and his museums aren’t welcome. Most won’t talk about their relationship to Hoppe, whether they invested or why projects failed in some locations like Sturgis, S.D. Hoppe is circulating the country, looking for spots to fill with museums and preparing prospectuses for investors to purchase stock. Sturgis, Waynesville, Mo., Columbus, Neb., and others just aren’t biting into Hoppe’s ventures. Although the Sturgis museum was never realized, it was registered as a limited liability company and changed from Veterans Memorial Military Museum, LLC, to Veterans Military Museum, LLC, in March of 2011.
Cases rule in plaintiffs' favor
At least one person that sued Hoppe talked to media and court documents tell more of the story. Sandy Stevens of Indianapolis, Ind., met Hoppe years ago through his brother, Frank, whom she knew for years. Stevens invested $200,000 in Hoppe’s Branson museum because she believed in his mission. Stevens’ father was a World War II veteran that passed away in 1996.
“I thought the museum was an excellent idea,” Stevens said.
Back in the day, Stevens was 100 percent behind Hoppe, so when he decided to open a veterans museum and dinosaur walk in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., she managed both for seven months and had the time of her life.
“I worked seven days a week and I really loved it,” she said. “I was dealing with veterans and seeing the tears rolling down their faces when they would see an artifact they recognized.” Stevens said one time, the museum held a reception for those who served at Pearl Harbor, and their spouses. The veterans came, some in uniform, to the reception near miniature replicas of Pearl Harbor ships.
“It was one of the most remarkable days of my life,” Stevens said. “Their husbands had never talked about it to their wives. It was very moving.”
Stevens knew Hoppe was short of cash because he had opened the Branson and Pigeon Forge museums, so she thought nothing of it when he couldn’t make the annual payment on her investment. Instead, she occupied her time managing the museums and taking delight in the children who visited the dinosaur museum. She was content, she said, even though she spent much of her own money taking care of utility bills, Christmas presents for employees, and incidentals like toilet paper.
“The credit was cut off. There was no money coming in. Financially, things were not in good shape,” she said.
At one point, Hoppe asked Stevens if she would travel to New York City and scope it out for a potential dinosaur museum. Stevens said she declined. The Pigeon Forge museums weren’t taken care of financially and she didn’t think Hoppe could afford another museum. Stevens said she left her management position in Tennessee rather abruptly and waited a year for Hoppe to make payments on her investment. After, she contacted an attorney in Omaha, Neb.
“I wanted every single cent he owed me.”
It happened to be over $200,000 by the time the case was decided in Stevens’ favor. Hoppe paid before the proceedings went to trial. He tried to settle for less. But Stevens’ was having none of it. She said he was extremely upset with her. In that taped interview, Hoppe had plenty to say about Stevens, but he avoided talking about the case. He said she was a disgruntled employee. He did talk about the litigation with Cornerstone Bank in York, Neb. He and his wife, Donna Hoppe, were sued by the bank for failing to pay on their promissory notes. The outcome was that Cornerstone would take possession of all the exhibits and artifacts in the Branson museum and sell them to recoup their money. A firm in Springfield, Mo., The Kingsley Group, was to manage the sale of the museum’s contents. Recently, veterans in Missouri have rallied to keep the museum’s contents together.
Another lawsuit came from CM Studio. The company made life-sized sculptures of dinosaurs for Hoppe. They sued him over nonpayment and Hoppe countered. The court decided neither of the parties had met their burden of proof.
Cornerstone is just one of many banks Hoppe has signed up with for loans. A former employee of Hoppe’s said, over time, paychecks came from a number of banks, including Cornhusker Bank, Bank of the West, City Bank & Trust, Pinnacle Bank, First National Bank, the former TierOne, Westgate Bank, Hastings State Bank and another Cornerstone. All banks are in Nebraska. The employee also received paychecks from banks in Minnesota, Tennessee and Missouri.
A trail of failed museums
It is unknown exactly how many museums Hoppe was or is pursuing. After Branson and Pigeon Forge, he opened a dinosaur museum in Riverhead, N.Y. It closed four years later. In a newspaper article, Hoppe complained he had to close the museum because it lacked visitors. The article explained how absentee landlords and crime contributed to the area’s downfall. Pigeon Forge is also closed. Surprising, after it was explained in a prospectus to draw investors that Pigeon Forge was drawing two times the visitors than Branson. The prospectus details the projected success of Pigeon Forge. Originally, Hoppe wanted to sell 400,000 shares in the museum. Shares were to be deposited in Hoppe’s escrow account – Federated Asset Management, LLC. An Internet search didn’t find the company, however, Federated Asset Management, GmbH, has its head office in Germany. The acronym, GmbH, stands for limited liability company.
Additional dinosaur museums were opened in Bloomington, Minn., at Mall of America, and Edmonton, Alberta Canada. They are closed. It is difficult to find out the reasons why the museums closed. City officials or chamber of commerce members have either never heard of the museums or don’t return calls. The Edmonton location was expected to return 20 percent annually on a $600,000 investment. The figures are a bit muddy on all the museums. For example, the dinosaur museum in Pigeon Forge pulled in one percent from vehicles that passed by the museum. If the museum pulled in half of that, an investor could receive $165,000 per year or 10 percent. In Riverhead, N.Y., four percent visitors equaled 1,320,000. Multiply that times the average fee to enter the museum, $10, an investor could receive $13,200,000 per year, according to the figures presented by one of Hoppe’s associates.
Many have a stake in Hoppe's future
A longtime family friend has a few of his own stories to tell regarding Hoppe. Apparently, Hoppe is constantly on the run to put fires out with investors. The friend and relatives of Hoppe’s went to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which eventually dropped a watch on Hoppe.
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