Panel suggests cutbacks at N.C. cultural sites to save $2M

Report targets zoo, museum

jfrank@newsobserver.comFebruary 15, 2012 

In a small town like Elizabeth City, the museum director attends ribbon-cuttings for new frozen yogurt shops, as Ed Merrell did Tuesday morning. Such events are good news in North Carolina's northeastern region, where the jobless rate typically exceeds the state average.

With local leaders grinning next to him, Merrell didn't have the heart to break the bad news coming the same morning from Raleigh: a new report commissioned by the state legislature recommended saving money by closing the Museum of the Albemarle, a five-year-old, $20 million crown jewel located downtown on the Pasquotank River.

"The museum is a source of community pride," Merrell said. "I think it would really hurt our city's visitation. So many (tourists) come here."

The museum closure is one of many recommendations from the legislature's fiscal oversight committee proposal to save potentially $2 million a year.

Others include: privatizing the N.C. Zoo and aquariums, cutting positions, reducing days of operation for less-visited historical sites and increasing admission fees.

Most of the anticipated savings come from mothballing the museum ($738,000) and outsourcing the zoo operations to a nonprofit entity ($800,000), according to estimates from the Program Evaluation Division, which conducted the report. To save an additional $2.4 million, the study suggests the state can close its 39 parks and recreation areas for two winter months when fewer people visit.

Republican legislative leaders ordered the study as part of their continuing efforts to consolidate and outsource state entities in the face of declining state revenues. It followed budget cuts that forced the state's tourist attractions to cut staff, operating hours and special programs. At the zoo, lawmakers outsourced gift-shop operations.

"We just need to look at different ways to do things," said state Rep. Julia Howard, a Republican co-chairwoman of the oversight committee. "It's not just about money. We need to do things as efficiently as we can."

Worth of cuts debated

Howard said lawmakers will use the report to study more possible cuts and draft legislation for this year's session to implement some of the initial recommendations.

For state officials, the savings - which amount to 2 percent of the state's attractions total budget - don't justify the devastating effects.

Melanie Soles, the chief deputy secretary for the Department of Cultural Resources, manages the state's historic sites. She disputed the projected savings and urged lawmakers to consider the communities where museums and sites are located.

Take Historic Edenton, one of the seven historic sites the study recommends shuttering for part of the week. Soles said the attraction is promoted in a partnership with the town that provides trolley service for a historical tour. "If you close Sunday and Monday, it's like you are shutting off the whole town," she said.

The Bentonville Battlefield in Johnston County is another site that could see reduced operations, with the report recommending closing it on Mondays from April through September.

The researchers identified potential cost savings by looking at state money given to attractions against the number of visitors.

The historical site with the highest per-visitor cost is a memorial to Richard Caswell, the state's first governor. Once the remnants of a Confederate gun boat at the site move to downtown Kinston, the state recommends closing the site for unknown cost savings.

The Museum of the Albemarle is the third highest cost-per-visitor museum, behind Tryon Palace and the N.C. Museum of Art.

In Durham County, the study suggested consolidating the management of three historic sites - Historic Stagville, Duke Homestead and Bennett Place - by eliminating two manager positions, saving $92,000. Soles said the move would make it impossible to serve the public and would create potential safety risks to visitors.

Jeffrey Crow, the chief at the state Office of Archives and History, gave the oversight committee a battery of statistics showing that high school and college students don't know basic historical facts. "Closing historic sites and museums will only worsen the lack of understanding and awareness of history," he said. "To neglect history is to imperil the civil well being and history of the state."

Focus is on zoo, aquariums

The proposal to outsource operations at the zoo and three aquariums is a main target for lawmakers. North Carolina and Minnesota are the only states to own and operate a zoo. Researchers recommended the state consider partnering with a private nonprofit and locating a corporate sponsorship, as other states have done. Other ideas included eliminating discounted admissions, such as those for senior citizens, or raising entrance fees.

Dee Freeman, the secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which oversees the state parks and zoo, said he supported the overall recommendations. As for closing parks for certain months, Freeman said the idea needed more study to answer questions about usage and safety. But he asked lawmakers to consider more than just "dollars and cents" in their analysis.

"They need to look at ... what it means to that community and how does that weigh against the small amount of savings you would achieve," he said.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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