Kluttz says she will fight for N.C. Transportation Museum

  • Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2013 12:27 a.m.
The Southern Railway 630 steam engine runs through downtown Salibury on Saturday.  The train left the North Carolina Transportation Museum and will carry passengers for a 24 mile round trip. (Photo by Scott Myers, Salisbury Post)
The Southern Railway 630 steam engine runs through downtown Salibury on Saturday. The train left the North Carolina Transportation Museum and will carry passengers for a 24 mile round trip. (Photo by Scott Myers, Salisbury Post)

SPENCER — Department of Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz, a former mayor of Salisbury, said she will fight to make sure the N.C. Transportation Museum doesn’t fold.

“I am absolutely committed to it,” Kluttz said during a phone interview from her Raleigh office. “It is such a treasure, not only locally but throughout the state.”

But people who thought Kluttz’s ties to Salisbury and Rowan County would translate into special treatment for the troubled Spencer museum will be disappointed.

“My role is to help everyone in this department,” Kluttz said.

She said she will do everything she can to support all of the state’s cultural resources and believes the new relationship between her department and the Department of Commerce will benefit state-owned sites like the transportation museum by boosting tourism throughout North Carolina.

A new report on Spencer’s 57-acre museum — one of the top five tourist attractions in Rowan County — says the facility is in jeopardy and calls for an immediate infusion of $4 million, new leadership and $400,000 a year from the General Assembly.

The state and N.C. Transportation Museum Foundation, the nonprofit support arm of the museum, split the cost of the $26,000 study, a five-year business plan mandated by state lawmakers and created by cultural institution consultant Petr Spurney of Washington D.C.

With attendance plummeting last year to its lowest point since 1996 — 77,276 visitors in 2012, down from a high of 129,597 in 2001 — the transportation museum has two years at most to turn things around, observers say.

The museum cut its staff from 18 to eight employees after the General Assembly slashed its annual allocation from $1 million to $300,000 over two years, forcing the facility to charge admission for the first time in 2011.

Spurney recommends the state retain ownership of the site while handing over all operations to a private, nonprofit group, likely the museum’s foundation.

Kluttz said she and other top officials in her department will hold a strategic planning session with leaders of the foundation to finalize a new arrangement. While the two groups have operated with a memorandum of understanding in the past, Kluttz’s goal is to come up with a binding legal contract.

The planning session will include discussion about hiring a new executive director — the museum has been without a permanent leader since Sam Wegner resigned in December — and adding a chief fundraiser, as recommended in Spurney’s report.

Karin Cochran, the new chief deputy secretary for Cultural Resources, said she expects the foundation to take on a greater leadership role at the museum as the result of Spurney’s recommendations. Cochran said Cultural Resources understands the dire situation in Spencer.

“The sense of urgency is here and now,” she said. “The business plan is a great catalyst to get things moving.”

Cochran, who presented a summary of Spurney’s report to state lawmakers last month, said Cultural Resources values what the foundation has done for the museum since the facility opened its first exhibit in 1983.

“They have played a very important role,” Cochran said. “The people of North Carolina could not have a first-rate experience there without the foundation.”

Cochran said she’s met with foundation President Roy Johnson at length to discuss the museum’s future.

The museum has another familiar face at Cultural Resources. Dr. Kevin Cherry, the new deputy secretary, is a former public history librarian at the Rowan Public Library and past volunteer at the transportation museum. He lived a few blocks away from the Spencer landmark.

Cherry praised the foundation and museum staff for persevering through budget cuts.

“Both the foundation and museum staff on site have done yeoman’s work to continue to serve the public well,” he said.

While the museum needs major repairs and some exhibits need to be refreshed, “the experience offered there is still a solid experience,” Cherry said.

Although Spurney’s report alluded to the ongoing conflict between the foundation and museum, saying employee morale is “extremely low” with a “pervading ‘us vs. them’ culture,” Cherry downplayed the characterization. The two groups sometimes have slightly different paths, which may cause friction, he said.

Everyone working on behalf of the museum has experienced exasperation and frustration during the state’s budget crisis, Cherry said.

“They have gone through tough times there, but at the same time, both the museum staff and foundation bear the same goal,” he said.

The governor’s budget recommends giving the museum $300,000 next year. The foundation is lobbying state lawmakers to bump that up to $400,000.

Considering the scarcity of public dollars, the recommendations in Spurney’s business plan make sense, said James Meacham, executive director for Rowan County tourism and a member of the task force that worked with Spurney for more than six months.

The foundation should take over daily operation of the museum, Meacham said.

“In this environment, they are the obvious choice,” he said.

The foundation has the longest working relationship with the museum and already puts on events and fundraisers, Meacham said. His organization recently took over marketing for the foundation.

A partnership between the foundation and state will provide more flexibility in how the site is run and maintained, as well as a more avenues to raise money, Meacham said.

The museum is a top-five tourist attraction in Rowan, along with Patterson Farm, Dan Nicholas Park, Lazy 5 Ranch and downtown Salisbury.

“It is vital and will remain vital” to Rowan County tourism, Meacham said. “I would hate to see that decline, and I would hate to lose it.”

Johnson, the foundation president, said his group supports Spurney’s recommendation that a single entity should run the museum.

“The goal is to take the museum to the level of a top museum over time,” Johnson said. “One that’s befitting North Carolina’s rich history of transportation.”

Spurney’s report said the foundation has a strong asset base that it can contribute, with more than $750,000 in savings and another $2 million in temporarily restricted funds for the Backshop and Powerhouse.

While the foundation could immediately increase its annual contribution to the museum to meet budget shortfalls, Spurney warned against relying on the foundation’s savings to fund museum operations.

“Its assets represent an important cushion for its own budget variances and therefore, should not be fully allocated to support the museum,” he wrote.

The foundation would need more staff, Spurney said. Current foundation board members and employees are not museum professionals, and the foundation has limited fundraising capacity, he said.

“Significantly more sophisticated fundraising skills will be required to meet the private fundraising challenges that confront the museum in its immediate future,” Spurney wrote.

Johnson said the foundation is up to the challenge. His organization and Cultural Resources are about to navigate uncharted waters as they work together over the next three months to devise a new strategy for the museum, Johnson said.

“We don’t know exactly how it will work,” he said.

A contract between the groups would have to address accountability, record keeping, oversight, fundraising and more, Johnson said. The foundation needs to work with Cultural Resources and the General Assembly to come up with the new organizational structure for the museum, “and then get it blessed by any and all who need to get it going,” he said.

In the meantime, Johnson asked the museum’s many volunteers and visitors, as well as Spencer, Salisbury and Rowan County local governments, to continue to support the facility.

“Don’t lose faith or give up,” he said. “We’re going to make this thing work.”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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