Tough Times Mean Tough Decisions
By A. Wilson Greene
(September 2010 Civil War News - Preservation Column)

Bookmark and Share

Civil War sites — battlefields, historic homes and museums — are no more immune to the vagaries of the “Great Recession” than any other segment of the economy. The plight of publicly funded places, such as National Battlefield Parks, has been widely publicized, but what about the numerous privately supported non-profits that are not so directly affected by shrinking pools of tax dollars?

Some of the best Civil War destinations operate outside the umbrella of state or national systems. The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Carnton and the Carter House in Franklin, and the Atlanta History Center are examples of such institutions that rely on private donations and “earned income” to keep their doors open and their staff employed.

Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier near Petersburg, Va., felt the hard boot of the recession on its throat in December 2008. The Park’s owner, the Pamplin Foundation of Portland, Ore., depends upon pre-tax profits earned by the R. B. Pamplin Corporation for its funding.

The weakened economy undercut the corporation, especially its large textile manufacturing firm, creating a drastic drop in the number of dollars available to support its various philanthropic endeavors, including Pamplin Historical Park.

The Foundation’s chairman notified me in the late autumn that it would be necessary to cut the Foundation’s contribution to our Park by some 62 percent in the fiscal year beginning Jan. 1, 2009. This meant an end to business as usual and severe steps would have to be taken to balance the budget during the coming year.

I feel confident that although the percentages might vary, there are few employees, board members or supporters of private historic sites to whom this scenario seems foreign. During the last several years, virtually all of my colleagues working in public history have shared similar horror stories.

As comforting as it was to know that we were not alone in this financial dilemma, there was little time for self-pity or mutual commiseration. We had to take immediate steps to ensure that adequate funds were available to meet our financial obligations and then develop a new fiscal model that would lead to mid- and long-term sustainability.

The majority of most park and museum budgets pay for personnel. There is only so much that can be saved in utility and maintenance costs and the purchase of goods and services. We had no choice but to lay off more than half of our talented work force — an awful experience for everyone involved.

The toll levied on people’s lives is almost immeasurable, but the impact of the “brain drain” involved in losing years of collective experience stays with an institution for a long time.

We also looked at services and programs that, although wonderful for visitors, were the most expensive to operate. In our case, our café had to close since the overhead of running our restaurant always exceeded the revenues it generated. We closed the Park during two months in the dead of winter to retool for the coming year and to implement our strategy.

Our plan involved three basic strategies.

First, we spent the winter cross-training the permanent staff to learn at least one additional operational function. Park Rangers learned to care for the Park’s livestock; interpreters became certified to lead educational programs; marketing and administrative staff perfected the protocols for running the admission desk and the Civil War Store.

Secondly, we replaced many of our departed full-time staff with hourly employees and many of our hourly employees with volunteers. We challenged our volunteer coordinator, who reached out to the local community to find talented men and women who wished to donate their time to help the Park function. By year’s end, we had logged more than 15 times the number of volunteer hours of the previous year.

Lastly, we appealed to the Park’s membership. We were candid with our members and explained the impact of the reduced funding from our parent foundation. All of us were stunned and humbled by the response we received. A large portion of our membership contributed substantial funds that helped us maintain our operating budgets at acceptable levels.

Naturally, each member of our staff responsible for a budget looked for ways to cut costs, an exercise that yielded measurable savings with only minor inconvenience.

We also began looking for ways to increase our earned income — the funds that we generate through our various revenue sources.

We instituted a vigorous “Custom Tour” program, offering guided services in our area and around the country for private groups and individuals; we ramped up our participation in Teaching American History Grants; and we sought the help of our members to purchase Interactive Video Conferencing equipment to create an entirely new way of delivering fee-based educational programs.

By working with an excellent local caterer, we earn a percentage of the hundreds of special events we host each year.

These initiatives resulted in an increase in the percentage of total revenues earned to more than 40 percent — a strong performance when many museums strive to earn 30 percent of what it costs to run their institutions each year.

So, where has all this left Pamplin Historical Park? We have had to reduce operating hours by season, varying from daily operations in the summer, to six days per week in the spring, to three days per week in the winter.

Visitors no longer can buy a       delicious lunch at our Hardtack & Coffee Café. There may be only one paid staff member and three volunteers in our Military Camp on any given day, rather than a crew composed entirely of professionals.

But we have taken comfort in receiving very positive feedback from our visitors and our members about their experience at the Park — virtually indiscernible from the comments we received before our belt-tightening.

The Park’s friends continue to rally behind us and donations have increased, despite the economy’s drain on charitable giving. Our outstanding staff takes as much pride as ever in contributing to the successful operation of a facility for which we all feel a degree of personal responsibility.

Was our financial crisis a good experience? Of course not. All of us wish that it had not been necessary to say goodbye to so many colleagues, inconvenience our hungry guests, or lock the gate on certain days of the year.

But a devastating budget environment does not mean that private institutions must fail, or even struggle. The most important goal for private Civil War sites — and non-profits of all descriptions — is to establish a financial model that creates a sustainable present operation and is poised to renew growth when these difficult times improve.

 

A. Wilson Greene has been Executive Director at Pamplin Historical Park since it opened in 1995. He is the author of six books including The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign and Civil War Petersburg. He is working on a three-volume history of the Petersburg Campaign for the University of North Carolina Press.