Transportation Museum supporters eye return of state funds

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 10, 2012

By Emily Ford
SPENCER — After a rough year of layoffs and budget cuts, brighter days — and more money — could be ahead for the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer.
In a surprise announcement, the state last week pledged $2.1 million to stabilize the historic Powerhouse.
And two legislators are promising to fight for continued funding for the museum, scheduled to lose all state dollars on July 1.
The administration of Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, plans to eliminate any contribution to the museum’s operating budget for the next fiscal year. That’s down from the nearly $1 million the museum received from the state last year.
But N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock and Rep. Harry Warren, both Republicans, say they will work to secure ongoing state support for the former Spencer Shops.
Separate from the upcoming budget battle, new Executive Director Sam Wegner received a letter from the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources promising $2.1 million for the Powerhouse within two months. The money will pay for a new roof and help repair damage from a 2010 tornado.
The state, which owns the museum, has also pledged an undetermined amount of money toward restoration of the radio shack.
“I do believe it is a clear and strong signal of the state’s continued value of its investment,” Wegner said. “This is such a positive development.”
The Powerhouse pledge comes about a week after a legislative panel rejected a proposal to cut roughly $2 million from the state’s parks and cultural attractions.
Historic sites like the transportation museum have been in the spotlight since the legislature’s fiscal oversight committee in February recommended closing a museum in Elizabeth City, as well as reducing operations at selected historic sites, eliminating positions and outsourcing N.C. Zoo and aquarium operations.
The state already slashed the Spencer museum’s appropriation roughly in half this year to $576,000, forcing the facility to charge admission for the first time in its 29-year history.
Falling numbers
Attendance plummeted by 25 percent, and the museum eliminated seven of 18 positions.
The nonprofit foundation that supports the museum is leading a grassroots effort to convince the legislature not to zero-fund the facility when the General Assembly reconvenes in May.
Foundation staff members have gone to Raleigh repeatedly to meet with Rowan County’s delegation and legislators with key positions on budget committees.
The foundation has organized a letter-writing and phone-calling campaign to request legislators’ support.
“We believe that the more contacts the legislature receives, the better they will understand the importance of the museum and the support it already enjoys,” said Roy Johnson, foundation president.
The effort has caught the attention of Warren and Brock, who say the state jumped the gun by planning to eliminate all funding for the museum within one year. By comparison, they said, Tryon Palace was given four years to become self-sustaining.
Warren said he agrees with moving museums, parks and aquariums to a new business model where they generate revenue rather than receive taxpayer dollars.
“But the transition from totally subsidized to totally self-sufficient was not well-thought out,” he said.
Museums are staffed by people who know history, not business, Warren said. The state should provide a transition period, including ongoing financial support and instruction in marketing, sales and business, he said.
Warren said he will support an appropriation of $400,000 to $500,000 for the next two years, as long as the Spencer museum shows it has a business plan and is weaning itself from tax dollars. He said he wants state commerce and tourism officials to provide support and training for museum employees.
Transportation museum staff members have impressed legislators by how well they responded to budget cuts this year, Brock said.
Taking it ‘on the chin’
The museum should make about $350,000 by July 1 from admission, rental fees and grants. It’s a significant amount of money, but less than half of what the museum needs to operate.
“We were hoping they could make it through without receiving funding, but it looks like we will have to put some money in,” Brock said.
The museum has had “some rough treatment” by the state in the past, he said.
“They took it on the chin,” he said.
Twice, state dollars pledged to repair the Powerhouse were diverted to other causes, including hurricane relief.
“I wouldn’t say punished, but they were not treated fairly,” Brock said.
Wegner said he feels confident the state money for the Powerhouse will come through this time. Brock said he strongly supports repair of the Powerhouse, which eventually will hold the heating, cooling and ventilation units for the Back Shop.
Museum advocates say restoring the Back Shop is crucial to making the museum self-sufficient.
“To get the Back Shop up and running will be such a great thing for meetings and conventions,” Brock said.
Storm damage
The Powerhouse and Back Shop suffered about $400,000 damage in the 2010 tornado that struck Spencer. The state paid about $50,000 to replace windows.
Keith Hardison, director for the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties, said he’s hopeful the state will restore some funding for the museum.
“We have had a number of legislators who are sympathetic to our message,” Hardison said.
Generating $350,000 in revenue this year shows the museum is contributing to the new public-private model, he said.
“We are demonstrating we can indeed pull a portion of our own weight, but we still believe that some appropriations are desirable and necessary to sustain the operation at a level of such quality that people have come to expect,” Hardison said. “And we feel like that ought to be long-term.”
The museum will request $401,000 from the state for the next fiscal year, or about half of its $787,000 proposed budget.
Johnson said he believes the Department of Cultural Resources and museum are working with the foundation “in a partnership that is stronger than ever before to assure that this museum will not only survive but prosper over time.”
The impact of transportation on North Carolina is a story that everyone in the state needs to understand, he said.
“This museum site has the clear potential to be one of the finest in the USA and beyond and can’t be lost because of a budget shortfall that takes away most or all of our operating funding,” Johnson said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.