As Williamsburg City Council considers the request of Colonial Williamsburg for $1.5 million in next year’s budget, it may be time to reconsider the city’s annual contribution to the foundation. This reconsideration should not be that the city stop its allocation to Colonial Williamsburg, which is a major revenue source and critical driver of the local economy, but rather to reconsider how Colonial Williamsburg should be supported.
For decades the city has directed funding to Colonial Williamsburg primarily for the support of marketing. Yet over those decades, the number of paid admissions has steadily declined. Maybe it is time for the city to think of a new way to support the foundation – a way that is direct and accountable, having measurable and observable outcomes.
The $1.5 million requested by Colonial Williamsburg, if approved, could be allocated to uses that enhance and improve the Restored Area such as building maintenance, gardens and landscaping, streetscape improvements and the like. After all, many people who visit Colonial Williamsburg do so to walk Duke of Gloucester Street, feel the 18th-century ambiance of the town and see the beautiful buildings and gardens, many without purchasing a Colonial Williamsburg ticket.
To do this, Colonial Williamsburg could provide a detailed list of projects, with associated costs, that it intends to undertake during the year focused on enhancing the restored area. The city can approve the list and then, as the projects are completed, it and citizens can observe how their tax dollars are being spent and the resulting improvements in the look and feel of the restored area.
What this new approach does is take the city’s contribution away from marketing, with its murky relationship between dollars spent and outcomes, to a more concrete level of action – here are the dollars, there are the results – new roofs, new fences, gardens maintained and improved, buildings newly painted — the list goes on.
As a city taxpayer, I would prefer to be able to see the direct impacts of the city’s use of its revenues rather than simply having to assume the city’s contribution was used well to market Colonial Williamsburg and bring more visitors here, an outcome we have seen in increasingly smaller numbers.
This change is not without issues.
For Colonial Williamsburg, it means more effort in determining projects to be considered for funding, although it may also mean needed projects that might otherwise be postponed could get funding and be completed. For the city, it means more work in assuring that funds go to the approved projects and that they are satisfactorily completed. It also means that City Council must be disciplined and trusting in accepting the projects proposed and not get into micromanaging the process by picking and choosing projects.
For all involved, Colonial Williamsburg, the city and city residents and taxpayers, this change in the method of funding provides more accountability – a more transparent and more verifiable mechanism for using city revenue to support Colonial Williamsburg and all it means for this community.