Director leaves as NC Transportation Museum creates five-year plan
SPENCER — In a surprise development, the new executive director for the N.C. Transportation Museum has stepped down.
Sam Wegner resigned Friday. “It just didn't work out,” Wegner said.
Friday was the last day of Wegner's nine-month probationary period, confirmed Keith Hardison, director for the N.C. Division of State Historic Sites.
Hardison, who was Wegner's boss, said Wegner left to pursue other opportunities.
“We certainly appreciate his dedicated service,” Hardison said.
Wegner said he does not have another job lined up and could not disclose whether he was asked to resign.
His departure leaves the museum without a CEO at a crucial time. The state-owned facility is attempting to become an enterprise fund, generating revenue by charging admission for the first time, hosting more events and renting out parts of the facility.
In the past two years, the museum's staff has been cut in half to nine employees, and the state's previous $1 million yearly allocation is down to $300,000.
Larry Neal, the museum's former chief of museum services who still lives in Spencer, has returned as interim executive director.
Neal left to take a job as director of Reed Gold Mine in Concord, a post he will return to after a permanent transportation museum director is hired.
Hardison said he doesn't plan to hire Wegner's replacement until the museum completes a state-mandated five-year business plan in February 2013.
The N.C. General Assembly has required three state historic sites — the Spencer museum, Tryon Palace and Roanoke Island Festival Park — to complete studies to determine the best model for operation.
It's possible one or all of the sites could end up going private.
Privatization is one model the sites are required to analyze in their five-year plan, Hardison said.
The transportation museum and its nonprofit foundation are splitting the cost of the study. Hardison said he didn't have the total cost of the study immediately available.
Petr Spurney, a museum and cultural institution consultant in Washington D.C., has been hired to conduct the study. He has a committee of about 12 members, including Hardison, foundation members, museum staff, Spencer Town Manager Larry Smith, Rowan Tourism Executive Director James Meacham and Robertson Foundation Director David Setzer.
The committee has met once, and Spurney is interviewing dozens of stakeholders about the museum.
“We want to get as many points of view that we possibly can,” Hardison said. “We want to make this study as broad and as inclusive as possible.”
Hardison called Wegner's departure bad timing, considering the museum's difficult transition.
Wegner resigned exactly one year after former longtime Executive Director Elizabeth Smith retired. The day after Smith's retirement in 2011, the museum announced four layoffs.
Staff and budget cuts have continued since then.
Hardison hired Wegner after a committee conducted a nationwide search. Wegner held leadership positions with museums and historic sites for more than 34 years and most recently served as a vice president of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
Meacham said his organization's support of the museum hasn't faltered with Wegner's departure.
“We still believe the museum is vital for tourism,” said Meacham, who directs the Salisbury-Rowan Visitors Center.
Tourism will continue to help the museum and foundation move forward by awarding grants for marketing and events, he said.
With more than 80,000 visitors per year, the museum is a substantial economic driver for Rowan County, Meacham said. Visitors eat in local restaurants, shop and fill up their cars with gas.
Between 400 and 500 annual overnight hotel stays in Salisbury are attributed to events at the museum, including Thomas the Tank Engine and train excursions hosted by the foundation.
“It's also an important part of state history,” Meacham said.
The museum is a popular field trip destination.
Hardison said the museum needs a leader who can raise money, interact with the public and build community support for the museum, like “any good CEO.”
“The money angle and support angle are critical, perhaps more critical for this museum,” he said.
Spurney will present several operation models to the local committee. The Department of Cultural Resources, which oversees N.C. State Historic Sites, must present the five-year business plan to General Assembly by Feb. 1.
State legislators will have the final say on the future of the transportation museum.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.