newstrying to reason the museum money crunch

Trying to reason the Museum money crunch


As a show-me-the-money business guy, I’m having a hard time on the issue involving funding for the Waynesboro Heritage Foundation, because this one isn’t one where you’re going to get a lot tangible out of return-on-investment analysis.
Vice Mayor Frank Lucente is rarely right, but he is on a key point on this – that city taxpayers are subsidizing the museum at a high ratio of about $20 per visitor for the 3,000 visitors that the Waynesboro Heritage Museum sees a year.

Lucente supports the cut proposed in City Manager Mike Hamp’s 2009-2010 budget that would take the Foundation’s appropriation from the city from $59,500 to $22,500, a reduction of $37,000 or 62 percent that would the president of the Foundation’s board of directors says would close the Museum down.

“If they cut my budget, getting into salaries, if you have to resort to volunteers, it’s not going to be open,” Bridgeforth told the News Virginian. “We wouldn’t close until we absolutely have to. We would try to keep it open, but it wouldn’t fit the bill.”

Bridgeforth and Waynesboro Heritage Museum curator Courtney Gondoli comprise the Foundation’s two-person paid staff. The Foundation does not pay rent on the newly renovated Heritage Museum, but Bridgeforth told the NV that there are significant costs associated with heating the building and maintaining the Museum’s exhibits.

Lucente pointed out in an interview with the paper that the Museum had operated with volunteers in the past, “and there’s volunteers out there that can do it again,” Lucente said.

And I suppose he could be right there, too. Speaking from experience, though, I don’t find it all that likely that you’re going to be able to manage the number of volunteers that would be needed to keep the Museum open without having somebody in a paid capacity dedicated to such an enterprise. My experience here comes from my service with several local nonprofit boards and the for-profit Waynesboro Generals baseball team, which utilizes a significant amount of volunteer labor to maintain operations. Every group that I am and have been affiliated with has had at least one paid staff person to run the day-to-day affairs even with active boards providing manpower and volunteers outside of the board structure augmenting their efforts with free toil of their own.

I think at the least, then, you have to have as a minimum a 20- to 30-hour-a-week paid person to manage the volunteers who provide the bulk of the staffing for the Heritage Museum. That, of course, in all likelihood doesn’t get you somebody who can also do strategic-planning work on the ongoing restoration work at the Plumb House Museum up Main Street, which had languished for years on the all-volunteer model that saw little in terms of progress toward getting anything done, so you have to include that in the considerations.

Which gets me to thinking business plan. OK, so we have 3,000 visitors a year at the Heritage Museum, and a $60,000 budget. We’re not going to be able to get away with charging them $20 apiece to be able to walk through the door. What about $5? Or even a dollar or two? This is wholly a guess from me, but I think the best you’re going to do is $5 a person, and even at that rate you’re going to lose a lot of your visitors, maybe in the area of half or more. Alternatively, a dollar or two wouldn’t do much damage to the numbers, but wouldn’t have much impact on the bottom line, either.

We could always charge the school system for educational programs put on by the Museum. Which is what many other museums do, except that here we don’t get any net gain out of doing this, because we fund the school system with our tax dollars just as we would fund the Museum out of our tax dollars.

So we’re back to square zero, as I like to say when it’s not clear even what our first step ought to be.

As I said above, I’m a numbers guy, and I have a hard time backing something without numbers to back me up. I know well the rationale regarding the protection of the investment of $2.3 million into the refurbishing of the Museum, and $2.3 million is a plenty-big number, but I think Lucente could easily argue that going all-volunteer would keep the Museum open and thus not put at risk that sizable investment.

But I say, Yeah, and in about the half-assest way possible.

Maybe it’s because I’m biased being a history guy, too, in addition to being a numbers guy and business guy and such, but I don’t think we’re doing our city a service keeping the Heritage Museum alive on life support.

A lot of people have put in a lot of hours to get us to where we are with what we have at the Waynesboro Heritage Museum, and it would be a shame to throw the many tens of thousands of dollars worth of volunteer labor plus the couple of million put into the building down the drain for nothing.


– Story by Chris Graham



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