Colonial Williamsburg president Mitchell Reiss to step down

Staff writer

Colonial Williamsburg president and CEO Mitchell Reiss will step down from his post in October, saying that after a successful stint in the job it’s time for a change.

Reiss arrived at a floundering Colonial Williamsburg in 2014, with the mission of reversing the museum’s misfortunes, as it struggled with declining visitation and a shrinking endowment.

Under his watch, Colonial Williamsburg embarked on a massive restructuring in June 2017 intended to cut down on the foundation’s costs by outsourcing numerous aspects of its operation and focusing Colonial Williamsburg on its work as a historical site. Prior to the restructuring, the foundation had introduced a number of programs such as a musket range and an ice rink to entice visitors while Reiss was president and CEO.

“I have immensely enjoyed my five years as the Foundation’s President and CEO,” Reiss said in a prepared statement. “It has been a privilege to work every day with such talented and dedicated colleagues, and I am very proud of all that we have accomplished together.”

Reiss will leave his post as the chief of the region’s iconic historical site at the end of October. A search is underway for his replacement, according to a Colonial Williamsburg news release that announced Reiss’ upcoming departure Tuesday.

Thurston Moore, chairman of the foundation’s board of trustees, said in the release that Reiss had successfully led the foundation through a period of change.

“Mitchell has worked successfully to help Colonial Williamsburg navigate unprecedented cultural and technological shifts, building a record of solid accomplishment under his tenure,” Moore said.

Reiss reflects

In an exclusive interview Tuesday afternoon, Reiss reflected on his tenure, calling it a successful one and that now was the time for him to turn the page.

“I had originally come here five years ago with a mandate from the board to try to turn around the organization. There was a list I had made in my head of things I wanted to achieve. The first thing, of course, was assembling a great team and then tackling the problems. I think we accomplished a lot of what we originally intended to do,” he said.

With that in mind, now seems like the time for something new, though Reiss said he doesn’t know where he will end up next.

“It’s time to figure out a new adventure. Elisabeth and I decided that’s what we’d like to do,” Reiss said, referring to his wife.

Reiss pointed to turning things around for the Colonial Williamsburg commercial operations — hotels and restaurants — as one accomplishment he’s proud of during his time in his role.

“Their operations were losing money. Last year they made money and this year we are projecting them to be even more profitable. So I think right-sizing the commercial businesses was very important for the foundation,” he said.

An increase in visitation in 2017 and diversifying the senior leadership team and programming were also things Reiss chalked up as accomplishments.

Among the most notable foundation moves made during Reiss’ tenure was the decision to restructure Colonial Williamsburg in June 2017.

As part of that restructuring, Colonial Williamsburg laid off 71 employees and outsourced golf operations, product and retail management, facilities management and landscaping, which resulted in the departure of another 262 employees. Colonial Williamsburg also closed the Kimball Theatre, though the College of William and Mary stepped up to run it while Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall is being renovated.

“It was an extremely difficult and painful decision to take, but it was one that was absolutely necessary for the continued financial health of the foundation,” Reiss said.

While it’s just two years since the restructuring, recent tax documents and audits suggest the foundation is turning a corner.

The foundation had an endowment of $693.7 million at the end of 2017, a roughly $30 million increase from its value of $663.6 million at the end of the previous year, according to an audit.

In a June 2017 interview, Reiss said the foundation’s endowment was on track to have a negative balance by 2026 if it continued drawing heavily on it to meet expenses. The foundation used $65.4 million (9.8%) of its endowment for operational expenses in 2017, and used $70.9 million (9.9%) in 2016. Colonial Williamsburg wants to decrease endowment withdrawal to 5% in 2020.

The foundation’s expenses decreased from $139 million in 2016 to $132 million in 2017, according to tax documents.

Another recent and noteworthy Colonial Williamsburg effort was a re-imagining of the parking lot behind the Blue Talon Bistro in Merchants Square as a public plaza. The project, Goodwin Plaza, was first proposed in October 2018 but was withdrawn after public outcry.

Reiss expects to spend his last months at Colonial Williamsburg helping out with the search for his successor. One thing he would like to see his successor do is put effort into articulating the value of American history to the public, a task he wished he had spent more time on himself.

“There’s a larger societal trend that all of us in the museum world and historic sites community are battling, which is a lack of American history being taught in schools these days,” Reiss said. “I hope my successor will be able to have a little more time to devote to raising the profile of importance of teaching history. Especially as America becomes more diverse ethnically, demographically and racially. The one thing that unites us is our common national inheritance.”

Community response

Other leaders in the Historic Triangle community called Reiss an important partner at the head of a cultural institution and economic driver for the region.

“The relationship between William and Mary and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is a critical one, and Mitchell Reiss worked to sustain and strengthen those ties during his time as president,” William and Mary president Katherine Rowe said in a statement. “Mitchell also has a long relationship with the university, including serving as its Vice Provost for International Affairs. We wish him and his family the very best.”

Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Executive Director Philip Emerson echoed those sentiments, saying that his organization, which operates Jamestown Settlement and The American Revolution Museum in Yorktown, benefited from a close working relationship with Reiss.

“It’s been a pleasure to work with Mitchell and his team over the past five years, which built on years of close collaboration between Colonial Williamsburg and JYF,” Emerson said.

Emerson lauded Reiss’ attention to the business side of the area’s museums and his willingness to share tourism data.

“Mitchel continued to build on a business plan and sought data and shared data as we looked at Williamsburg as a tourist destination,” he said.

Williamsburg city manager Andrew Trivette said Reiss was an effective advocate for Colonial Williamsburg.

“Mitchell had an understanding of Colonial Williamsburg from the financial side that helped move the foundation forward and helped us support them as partners,” he said.

Reiss’ successor should have the same deep understanding as Reiss regarding the community and Colonial Williamsburg's place as a cornerstone of both Virginia's and the nation's enduring story, said Jeanne Zeidler, chairwoman of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance board of directors.

"That's a very difficult job to do," Zeidler said of Reiss' position at the helm of the foundation. "Sometimes you make a decision to move on."

Looking forward

Reiss’ last day as president and CEO will be Oct. 31. The effort to find Reiss’ replacement is already underway, and the foundation fully expects to have him smoothly pass the baton to his successor.

“We are already working with a national search firm. We’re very optimistic, as you can imagine. Colonial Williamsburg is a marquee name,” Moore said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

“He’s put together a wonderful, talented collaborative team of senior leadership at the foundation. That gives us a lot of confidence that we got a great foundation and great momentum to pass the baton to a successor,” Moore said.

Staff writer Steve Roberts Jr contributed to this report.

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_


UPDATES:

5:00 p.m., June 18: This story was updated with comments from community leaders and additional details.

3:15 p.m., June 18: This story was updated with additional comments from Reiss and other information.

This story was originally published at 1:15 p.m. June 18.

A previous version of this story reported ticketed visitation at Colonial Williamsburg increased in 2018. Ticketed visitation actually decreased that year. Ticketed visitation increased in 2017 compared to 2016 figures.
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