Proposed budget ‘difficult’ as Kluttz braces for historic site closures
PINEVILLE — N.C. Secretary of Cultural Resources Susan Kluttz, who championed historic locations as a former Salisbury mayor, faced a difficult task explaining her state department’s need to shutter a presidential state historic site, she said Tuesday.
Inside the President James K. Polk State Historic Site’s main hall, Kluttz explained the looming budget cuts to a group of Polk supporters, including about two dozen third-graders holding “Keep Polk Open” signs, who hoped to change the fate of the Pineville site. The site is slated to be closed to the public, but officials hope to reopen it at a later date.
Still, the ominous news appeared to stun those in attendance.
“I’m here to let you know that I am concerned and I want to hear what you have to say to me and to our staff,” Kluttz said in her opening. “I want to assure you how important this site is to us. We know it’s important.”
Kluttz toured the exhibits as part of a series of stops for historical sites that are slated to become dormant and not open to the public. The Pineville exhibit — honoring Polk’s childhood in Mecklenburg County — is one of four expected to be mothballed as part of Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget.
In the four months since her appointment, Kluttz said, she’s handled several “difficult” cuts to the cultural resources budget.
“I’ve experienced in Salisbury cutting a budget,” Kluttz said, “but I haven’t experienced anything like this.”
Site officials snapped into a welcome mode when the former mayor and her staff arrived about 10:30 a.m.
A group of Pineville Elementary School students lined the edge of the sidewalk, spitting out presidential facts.
Many of the third-graders wore signs around their necks. One read, “James Polk is no joke, it matters to the folk who live here, if it disappears we’ve lost our history.”
Brian Doerer, principal at the elementary school, told Kluttz that students from all over visit the site.
“Thousands of kids — every third-grader in Charlotte comes here,” he said.
Kluttz explored the inside of two structures recreated in the early to mid-1800s when Polk would’ve lived in Mecklenburg County.
Students sat on the floor of both wooden cabins, one recreated like a home and the other like a kitchen.
But the bad news came shortly after as historical interpreters dressed in period clothing stood among local, regional and state two-button suits.
Kevin Cherry, deputy secretary of the office of archives and history, explained to the group the proposed budget would keep the public out with one staff member remaining for maintenance purposes.
“When we talk about making the site go dormant, we have great hopes we can bring back the site either with increased state appropriation later or with increased partnerships with 501C3s (non-profits) or with local governments,” Cherry said.
A few advocates for the site left shaking their heads during the brief Q&A session. Other supporters grew testy in their remarks to state officials.
But officials tried to maintain some optimism in the news, telling volunteers and history buffs that the site remains a priority to the department and that they will work to secure funding.
“A national story is told here in Pineville and we are well aware of that,” Cherry said.
Officials said advocates may be able to raise the $52,000 that would be saved in the cuts.
Still, several supporters said state officials should have let them know the site was on the chopping block, which they said will hinder fundraising attempts.
Karen Van Kuren, president of Polk Memorial Support Fund, said it “would have been nice” if fundraisers had more than a few months to gather the needed cash.
“I appreciate the visit. I think they definitely have the concern and they certainly have felt from the community what it means to all of us and to North Carolina.”
But Van Kuren said supporters will have to work quickly to avoid impending dormancy.
“Right now, it seems immense. We’re talking about a very short time period,” she said. “We’re going to have to have a lot of brain storming.”
Standing beside a charred hearth in a smoky cabin shortly before the press conference, Audrey Melliechamp said the site provides learning opportunities for children and adults.
Melliechamp said her cooking guild has worked out of the site for years and recently taught a group from Alabama to cook over the open fire. That group later started a similar guild in their home state.
With a dozen eager faces gathering on the hardwood Tuesday afternoon, she said she hopes the site survives so future generations could appreciate it.
“The children see and feel history. It’s alive to them,” she said. “Who knows if a little boy or a little girl will continue this when they’re adults with their children here.”
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.