Local leaders hopeful for Colonial Williamsburg despite loss of Kimball

The Williamsburg community responded with sadness, disappointment and some hope after learning Colonial Williamsburg has been losing money for years, that people will be laid off and the Kimball Theater will close in the coming week.

"I think it's a big change that hopefully will lead to some good things for Colonial Williamsburg and our community," said Jeanne Zeidler, former Williamsburg mayor. "I applaud the emphasis on going back to the core mission. I think that's great because I think it's a very important educational and cultural institution not only for our community, but for the country."

Ziedler attended a presentation by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation president Mitchell Reiss Thursday morning. He said the foundation will be going "back to basics" with a focus on education and the Historic Area. That plan includes outsourcing some of its commercial activities including golf operations and its retail store, eliminating 71 positions by the end of the year.

The most immediate result of Reiss' new plan is to close the Kimball Theatre, a staple of Merchants Square for years. According to Reiss' presentation to stakeholders Thursday, the theater hasn't been profitable since 1999.

It will close July 6 after fulfilling its July 4 weekend commitments.

Local author and historian Wilford Kale said he is surprised the foundation targeted the theater.

"The layoffs? I'm not surprised, they probably should have outsourced some of that five or six years ago. I think that should have been done on (former foundation President Colin) Campbell's watch. It would have lessened the impact and probably helped the foundation sooner rather than later," Kale said. "I'm disappointed about the Kimball Theatre because I think the Kimball — you could almost say is a public service aspect of Colonial Williamsburg. I'd hate to see that gone in the middle of Merchant's Square."

The Kimball holds numerous events throughout the year including movies and concerts. Local nonprofit CultureFix uses the venue for its concerts; the most recent was May 20.

"(The announcement) was very shocking to me. We certainly don't want a 'closed' sign on the main facility in Merchants Square," said Steve Rose, CultureFix founder and president. "It's a lifestyle piece and something for tourists."

Reiss said in a interview with the Gazette he hopes to find an organization that will lease and reopen Kimball Theatre.

Colonial Williamsburg's visitation increased 10 percent in 2016 over the previous year, Reiss said. He said he hopes this plan will make the foundation sustainable by 2019.

Some in the community have a vested interest in Colonial Williamsburg's success. The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is state-run and not affiliated with Colonial Williamsburg, but their shared partnerships boost the three destinations said Susan Bak, senior director of marketing for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

They work together to bill the area as a historic destination — which is not hard because everything happened so close by, she said.

"I've always thought how incredible it was that the history of American unfolded in the way that it did in this 24-25 mile radius," Bak said. "Our shared partnerships have been in the area of destination marketing, being able to attract visitors to the area."

If Colonial Williamsburg is attracting visitors, she said that only helps Jamestown and Yorktown, the other two points of the Historic Triangle.

The success of Colonial Williamsburg also ensures a steady stream of revenue for the city of Williamsburg. Former Mayor Clyde Haulman said the foundation is the largest taxpayer in the city.

"It's a shame — the health of Colonial Williamsburg is critically important to the city. We did a study not too long ago and asked visitors why they come to the Williamsburg area, and 70 percent said they did so because of Colonial Williamsburg," Haulman said. "In previous years, they employed many people, from those in the hospitality field to people in the education and historical realm."

Outsourcing doesn't necessarily mean huge job losses, Ziedler said. According to Reiss' presentation, employees whose jobs are being outsourced can opt to move with the position to the new company. Some people will be forced to leave, he said.

"Yesterday was disbelief, kind of bewilderment and today it's kind of sinking in," said Mickey Chohany, co-founder of Second Street American Bistro. "My heart's aching for those employees that lost their jobs; it's just a tough time — a tough time but as tough as it is ripping the band aid off, it probably made all the justifiable sense to do what they're embarking on."

Reiss said the foundation will offer severance packages and job coaching. Area nonprofits are ready to help, too.

"My immediate reaction is that it will probably place more demand on our social services programs over time because there will be people that are no longer employed and that always gives us concern," said Larry Foster, interim director of United Way Williamsburg.

The United Way of Greater Williamsburg and the United Way of the Virginia Peninsula are in the process of merging as a way to better serve the region. Their merger was announced in early June.

Chohany said despite the job losses, the change may be good for the foundation in the long run — it might be a needed "reinvigoration." Zeidler said she's hopeful about the direction Reiss is taking, but hopes the Kimball Theatre isn't a sustained casualty.

"I think we all recognized that there were some things that needed to change," Zeidler said. "Closing the Kimball does make me sad, that is the longtime cultural icon in our community, and I hope that some way can be found in the future to reopen it and hold that essential space in Merchants Square."

Staff Writers Wesley Wright, Troy Jefferson and Seth Birkenmeyer contributed to this report.

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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