Transportation museum needs money, leadership

  • Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2013 1:08 a.m.

SPENCER — The future of the N.C. Transportation Museum looks dire unless it receives an immediate infusion of cash and eliminates the conflict between two groups that run the facility, according to a new report.

“The museum is at a precarious point,” Petr Spurney concluded in his report after a six-month study of the troubled museum. “It desperately needs new investment and a unified organization to gain a stable footing and ongoing fundraising to preserve its long-term sustainability.”

Spurney is a museum and cultural institution consultant in Washington D.C.

He prepared the report with help from a committee and dozens of interviews with local stakeholders. Spurney said the state should retain ownership of the 57-acre site, one of the top tourist attractions in Rowan County, while handing over all operations to a private, nonprofit group.

The museum is currently run by the state’s Department of Cultural Resources and the N.C. Transportation Museum Foundation.

Spurney said the museum needs a single entity to run the facility with one chain of command that manages all products and services offered under the banner of the museum.

He said the museum’s foundation is an obvious choice.

“Few, if any, other private nonprofit organizations are available for consideration,” he said.

The foundation has been a “steadfast and strong supporter” of the museum since its inception and is directly responsible for much of the museum’s positive brand recognition, Spurney said.

But the foundation has some drawbacks.

“The museum’s foundation is well-positioned to become the state’s private partner, but its lack of professional museum experience and fundraising capabilities weaken its partnership contributions in the short-term,” he said.

Officials with the Department of Cultural Resources reported some of Spurney’s findings Wednesday to state lawmakers.

The N.C. General Assembly required the Spencer museum, as well as Tryon Palace, to complete a study to determine the best model for operation. Lawmakers required the sites to consider going private as one option.

Department officials, speaking to the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee for General Government, said complete privatization of the museum is unlikely. The museum needs the state to cover fixed costs, as well as paying for repairs and renovations, they said.

Cultural Resources acknowledged that dual management of the museum is not effective but stopped short of making a recommendation to lawmakers, saying the department “plans to facilitate the development of a final recommendation to move toward the long-term vision.”

Subcommittee members will consider the presentation while formulating state budgets from the house and senate.

The Spencer museum is struggling to stay open. The museum’s new executive director stepped down in December on the last day of his probationary period.

The state cut the museum’s yearly allocation from $1 million to $300,000, forcing the facility to charge admission for the first time. Attendance plummeted.

In the past two years, the museum’s 18-member staff has been cut to eight employees. Spurney said employee morale is “extremely low” with a “pervading ‘us vs. them’ culture.”

The cuts make it difficult to operate the museum and raise money to make up for the lost state dollars, his report said.

“With regards to staffing, the cutbacks to date have been too severe, and additional staff are required to properly operate the large and complex facility, let alone develop the fundraising capacity essential for the future,” Spurney said.

The site is not a strong enough draw for families and children, and school group visits have dropped off considerably due to the admission charge and lack of tie-in with curriculum.

“Families do not see the need to revisit, and so a key regional market is largely going untapped,” he said.

Museum visitors who now have to pay for admission soon will balk if the site and collection continue to be neglected, Spurney said.

“It is critical to eliminate the deferred maintenance backlog and add basic interpretation to exhibits,” he said.

The museum exhibits are static with limited interaction and interpretation, he said, calling them “dated” and “tired.”

Without new exhibits, events and activities, visitors will not come back more than once, Spurney said.

The museum also suffers from high ongoing maintenance costs and insufficient marketing, as well as a lack of leadership and unifying strategy, he said.

On the plus side, the museum is centrally located with a large population base within 100 miles and easy highway accessibility. The museum enjoys a large and loyal base of volunteers, as well as strong local community support, Spurney said.

Compared to other area attractions, the museum is relatively inexpensive.

A large and unique site, the museum boasts assets and exhibits like the roundhouse, backshop and turntable that are not found elsewhere.

Spurney’s recommendations include:

• The General Assembly should allocate $400,000 annually to the museum for two years to properly staff and maintain the facility, then $300,000 a year after that as the museum generates more revenue on its own.

• The museum needs $4 million immediately to eliminate deferred maintenance and stabilize operations, and leaders should develop a financing strategy to meet the investment requirements.

Neither the state or foundation have the funds necessary to make that investment themselves, Spurney said, and should pursue alternative sources of funding such as private debt guaranteed by museum assets or a fundraising drive.

• The museum should immediately hire two critical leadership positions, an executive director and a development director.

• The museum should evaluate opportunities to increase revenues, including higher ticket prices and additional on-site activities like concessions and private events, as well as more off-site activities like additional excursion train rides.

• Volunteers need more support and recognition to ensure their continued contributions. In 2012, nearly 90 volunteers contributed on average 325 hours each for more than 28,000 total hours that easily saved more than $500,000 in expenses.

• The museum represents a key part of the state’s heritage and a most unique cultural asset that should be preserved for generations to come.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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