Historic sites face modern day pressures

rbrauchle@vagazette.com

Editor’s note: This article is the fifth in a series exploring Colonial Williamsburg finances. To revisit the series, visit vagazette.com/colonialwilliamsburg.

The pilgrims are unionizing, Old Sturbridge villagers have turned to solar power and Colonial Williamsburg is outsourcing.

In the past year, living history museums and historic sites throughout the country have made some very public business decisions to improve their bottom line. The hope is those moves are not obvious to the paying public and do not take away from the sites core mission.

“As difficult as these decisions are, for as much as they impact our Colonial Williamsburg colleagues today, it would be far worse for the large majority of our employees and the future of the foundation if we did nothing and just hoped that our financial fortunes would somehow change next year, or the year after,” wrote Colonial Williamsburg President and CEO Mitchell Reiss in a late June letter announcing the organization’s decision to lay off 71 people and outsource several functions, affecting another 262 employees.

Since Colonial Williamsburg’s announcement, the Gazette has combed through publicly available tax records and audits dating back to the early 2000s and reviewed the orgnaization’s annual reports from as far back as the 1970s to get a clearer picture of how it operates and where its financial troubles originated.

A review of other nonprofit living history museums and historic sites shows Colonial Williamsburg stands out both in its size and the lengths it goes to cater to visitors. Its budget is 29 times larger than Plimoth Village’s efforts to recreate 17th-century New England, and CW’s hospitality costs are $19 million more than the entire budget for George Washington’s Mount Vernon historical site.

Reiss has said his leadership team has made several changes to help right Colonial Williamsburg’s financial struggles, contributing an additional $10.4 million in savings in the past two years. New programs give visitors hands-on interactions with colonial-era weapons and tools, seasonal attractions bring new crowds and Liberty Lounge caters to military families. Outsourcing several functions should save Colonial Williamsburg another $5 million annually in the coming years, said Jeff Duncan, Colonial Williamsburg vice president of real estate.

Those changes create progress toward reducing Colonial Williamsburg’s over-reliance on its $663 million endowment. Despite a written policy of only withdrawing 6 percent of its endowment each year, Colonial Williamsburg has used as much as 12.1 percent (in 2014) to offset operating deficits, according to Reiss and the organization’s IRS forms.

Virginia Tourism Corp CEO Rita McClenny said she is aware of Colonial Williamsburg’s decision to outsource and she believes staying static isn’t an option.

“They have to look at what’s working and what’s not working and make those determinations based on consumer demand, that’s key,” she said. “Change is something that has to happen — you take calculated risks — and you try to minimize any downside.”

Here are some ways living history museums and historic sites are changing to address financial pressures:

Mount Vernon

Tucked along the west bank of the Potomac River, George Washington’s Mount Vernon draws close to 1.1 million paid visitors each year.

The nonprofit Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association that oversees the palatial estate charges $18 for adult general admission to access the famous mansion, the surrounding colonial buildings, gardens, farm and museum. The 500-acre property is not open to the general public.

Rob Shenk, the site’s senior vice president for visitor engagement, credits the group’s core mission of telling Washington’s stories as the true driver of visitation.

“Our competition isn’t just other historic sites,” he said. “It’s everything that people are asked to do — sports, entertainment, food, all the things that happen in the Washington, D.C., area.”

Even though Mount Vernon draws nearly double the number of visitors as Colonial Williamsburg each year, it’s $47.9 million budget is just 20 percent of CW’s.

Both Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg operate with multi-million dollar endowments. While CW’s endowment value dropped 5.5 percent between the beginning on 2011 and the end of 2015, Mount Vernon’s had increased 6.3 percent, according to public tax records.

“We pride ourselves in presenting this historic estate,” Shenk said. “There’s not much change there, but we are really trying to be innovators in creating new and exciting platforms.”

The organization employed 747 people in 2015, a third the number at Colonial Williamsburg, according to the most recent available tax records.

“We’re doing very well, both in our ability to engage our guests and financially,” Shenk said. “When we have 1.1 million visitors each year, we want to have the highest impact with them, so they can leave with this memorable experience.”

Plimoth Plantation

In Massachusetts, Plimoth Plantation’s historical interpreters, artisans and maintenance workers voted to unionize in August, according to The Boston Globe. They demanded management address low-staffing levels, low wages and workplace safety.

Plimoth Plantation is more than 40-acres and depicts a 17-century English village and Wampanoag Native American campsite.

The site’s union represents about 50 of the museum's 180 full-time, part-time and seasonal employees, according to the Globe.

Colonial Williamsburg has had union-represented employees for at least four decades, although none of them are interpreters. The AFL-CIO Local 25 represents 500-650 hospitality workers, including the employees at the Williamsburg Inn and Williamsburg Lodge, said John Boardman, Local 25’s executive secretary-treasurer.

The union represented 64 percent of the Colonial Williamsburg Company’s staff, according to an audit performed for Colonial Williamsburg’s 2016 fiscal year.

At Plimoth, visitors must pay for admission, which varies in price depending on the season. In autumn, the $36 tickets provide access to the plantation, grist mill and a new role-playing waterfront exhibit.

The financial pressure applied by employees in August was coupled this summer with the notable absence of the replica Mayflower II, which was moved off site for restoration. It isn’t expected to return to the nearby harbor until 2019.

"All of our efforts to achieve stability occur as many museums, including Plimoth, face lower attendance," Stephen Brodeur, chairman of the Board of Trustees, told the Globe after the August vote to unionize. "Despite the challenges, we continue to focus on providing engaging and educational experiences for our visitors."

Plimoth hosts 360,000 visitors each year and operates with a $7.5 million budget. Visitors must find hotel accommodations off site. Dining options are only available for large groups, weddings and, of course, on Thanksgiving.

Old Sturbridge

A 90-minute drive west of Plimoth, costumed interpreters depict rural New England circa the 1830s at Old Sturbridge Village.

Old Sturbridge is a smaller operation than Colonial Williamsburg — its $10.6 million budget in 2015 was a fraction of the $227 million Colonial Williamsburg spent in 2015 — although the sites share similarities with their costumed interpreters. In Old Sturbridge, visitors without an admission ticket can access a tavern, cafe, bookstore and gift shop. They can only walk into the historic village and museum after buying a $14-$28 admission ticket.

The nonprofit organization oversees 40 original and restored historic buildings on the 200-acre property. In 2015, it employed 274 people, according to IRS tax records.

Old Sturbridge marketing director Michael Arnum said the site has put a greater emphasis on theater productions and “immersive experiences” in the past two years.

“It’s a direct answer to the decline in attendance living history museums have seen in the past 10 years,” he said. “And I’d have to say, it’s going well so far.”

Last autumn, Old Sturbridge contracted with a theater company to host 31 sold-out performances of “The Sleepy Hollow Experience.” This year, the site expects to hold closer to 40 shows, he said. The organization also holds shows in which a costumed interpreter invites visitors into a church in the middle of town. From there, the character summons spirits of New England’s past to discuss questions about race, capitalism and expansionism that were debated more than a century ago, and continue today.

“Our surveys show people are interested in these kinds of emotional, immersive experiences where they come face-to-face with people in the 1830s,” Arnum said.

Close to 255,000 people paid to visit Old Sturbridge in 2015 and contributed $1.8 million for admissions, according to the site’s most recent tax records. That same year, about 568,000 paid visitors came to Colonial Williamsburg, paying $19.1 million in admissions.

Old Sturbridge offers lodging at an off-campus motel, known as Old Sturbridge Village Inn & Reeder Family Lodges. In 2015, those hospitality facilities functioned with a $48,320 deficit, according to tax records. Colonial Williamsburg’s hospitality operations have also operated with an annual deficit in recent years — $3.7 million in 2016.

To reduce costs last December, Old Sturbridge began buying discounted electricity from a nearby 1.8-megawatt solar farm.

The organization also opened a charter school adjacent to the village’s museum in September. Arnum said the school will be a benefit to the 160 students who attend because it “brings the museum to the school and the school to the museum.”

“These students come away with this experience, having been at the museum every day,” he said. “Hosting schools is something we’ve been doing for a while, this was just turning that daily experience into something more structured.”

Monticello

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation has watched over the grounds of Monticello — just outside of Charlottesville —for 94 years with the goal of preserving the historic property while teaching the public about the third president’s life and legacy.

The grounds are closed to the nonpaying public, and the foundation offers a variety of tickets ranging from $9-$60, while providing tours of the grounds during the daytime and evening.

The group has adjusted ticket prices since 2011, allowing it to capture an additional $1.4 million even though attendance dropped 1.1 percent to just more than 435,000 visitors in 2015, according to tax records. The site has seen its expenses grow 32 percent during that period to $7.3 million.

Like Colonial Williamsburg, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation also uses an endowment to support its operations. Where the two differ is that Monticello’s endowment has continued to grow, gaining $103 million in value since 2011, according to tax records. That growth included close to $70 million in contributions during the 2015 fiscal year, which far outpaced any previous year for the past decade.

During the 2016 fiscal year, Colonial Williamsburg’s endowment dropped from $713 million to $663.6 million, according to an independent auditor's report of Colonial Williamsburg's books, which were obtained by the Gazette. The decrease includes taking $70.9 million from the endowment to offset operating expenses.

To help boost attendance at Monticello in the upcoming year, the foundation is in the process of restoring a multi-purpose building that will be used as an exhibit to, in part, tell the story of women and slaves on the property.

“This space is not just Jefferson’s space. The majority of people here were enslaved and many women and children were here. We have to tell the story of what they were doing and show our visitors what they were doing,” Niya Bates, public historian of slavery and African-American life at Monticello, told the Charlottesville-based Daily Progress. “We hope that people take away that this place is so much more diverse and interconnected than people initially think.”

McClenny, of the Virginia Tourism Corp., said presidential homes in Virginia have reported good visitation numbers this year.

“As a vacation experience, history is what we’re known for,” she said. “The spring and summer numbers were extremely vibrant.”

A free place

In the past year, Colonial Williamsburg's leaders have created a strategic plan outlining how the foundation will stabilize attendance and reduce its reliance on the endowment.

While the organization will not share that plan with the public, it did so with the American Alliance of Museums this year during the accreditation process.

“The next few years will require some very heavy lifting,” wrote the alliance after choosing to re-accredit the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. “Challenges include tackling a precarious financial situation, learning how to serve and attract a 21st-century audience, making an organizational cultural shift to become guest-centric and family-friendly (without neglecting adults visiting without children), and remaining a good neighbor while potentially changing the level or kind of access available to the local community.”

That access includes building a fence around the Historic Area. Reiss has publicly floated the idea — as a way to capture more revenue and increase safety on the property — although no formal plan has been submitted to the city of Williamsburg.

Asked earlier this month why people should pay to enter Colonial Williamsburg, Reiss responded with a question of his own.

“Is there another grand public place that people can visit like this in America?” he said.

Looking ahead

The Gazette will publish a series of articles about Colonial Williamsburg that explore several topics:

In short

Colonial Williamsburg

Budget: $227 million.

Visitors: 568,932

Employees: 2,031

Amenities/attractions: Historic area of more than 600 original and reconstructed houses, outbuildings, shops, taverns and public buildings depicting life and trades of colonial Williamsburg. Retail shops. Arts museums. Seven hotels, inns and colonial houses. More than a dozen dining options. Spa and Golden Horseshoe Golf Club.

Core mission: Preserve, restore, reconstruct or otherwise maintain historical structures, objects, works of art and locations and to promote, encourage and carry on any historical, interpretive, research or related educational activities.

Monticello

Budget: $29.7 million

Visitors: 435,000

Employees: 453

Amenities/attractions: Monticello property including the Thomas Jefferson’s house and gardens. Museum, retail shop and visitors center, which includes a cafe.

Core mission: The Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s mission is two-fold: Preservation, to conserve, protect and maintain Monticello in a manner that leaves it enhanced and unimpaired for future generations; and Education, to interpret and present Thomas Jefferson to the widest possible audiences, including scholars and the general public.

Mount Vernon

Budget: $47.9 million

Visitors: 1.07 million

Employees: 747

Amenities/attractions: Twenty-one room mansion along the Potomac River and gardens. Fully functioning distillery and gristmill. Museum with cinema experience. Restaurant.

Core mission: The mission of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association is to preserve, restore and manage the estate of George Washington to the highest standards and to educate visitors and people throughout the world about the life and legacies of George Washington, so that his example of character and leadership will continue to inform and inspire future generations.

Old Sturbridge

Budget: $10.6 million

Visitors: 255,000

Employees: 274

Amenities/attractions: Village depicting New England in 1790-1840. Taverns, cafe, bookstore and gift shop available without admission. Inn and lodges available for overnight stays.

Core mission: Old Sturbridge Village, a museum and learning resource of New England Life, invites each visitor to find meaning, pleasure, relevance and inspiration through the exploration of history.

Plimoth Plantation

Budget: $7.6 million

Visitors: 360,000

Employees: 180

Amenities/attractions: 17th-century English village, Wampanoag homesite, craft and cinema centers and replica Mayflower II ship (current being refurbished).

Core mission: A living history museum of 17th-century Plymouth Colony. The museum is dedicated to presenting the separate and shared history of the native Wampanoag and the English colonists in all it’s complexity and differing perspectives from recreating immersion environments and role-playing staff to craft demonstrations and indoor exhibits. The museum uses a wide variety of techniques to connect modern visitors with people, communities and events of the past.

Source: IRS 990s forms and organizations’ websites.

Brauchle can be reached by phone at 757-846-4361.

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