State budget brings uncertainty to N.C. Forestry Museum in Whiteville

relder@newsobserver.comJune 6, 2013 

The state spent $2 million two years ago renovating the N.C. Museum of Forestry in downtown Whiteville, so supporters were surprised by a move in the legislature to cut the museum out of the state budget.

The state Senate budget omits the $357,000 needed to operate the museum, which was developed to showcase the forest environment and its cultural and economic roles through state history.

Jim High, a founding member of the Friends of the N.C. Forestry Museum and owner of Whiteville’s newspaper, the News Reporter, said the proposal is oddly timed. High said the recent renovations to the 13-year-old museum made the homegrown attraction a cultural centerpiece for residents of Whiteville and surrounding Columbus County.

“We’ve just gotten this place to where it is a destination point,” he said. “This museum gives folks a reason to visit here, to see our museum and walk the streets of downtown.”

Sen. Andrew Brock, the Republican co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Natural and Economic Resources, said the Forestry Museum’s cutbacks resulted from “relatively low attendance and relatively high per-visitor operating costs.”

Museum officials said about 14,000 people visited the museum during the past year, and another 2,000 received services through staff outreach projects, costing the state about $23 per visitor based on the 2012 budget.

In contrast, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, which had its biggest year in 2012 after opening a new research wing, had 1.2 million visitors and received about $9 million from the state to operate – about $7.50 per visitor.

“With North Carolina facing serious fiscal challenges, including unexpected Medicaid costs of over a billion dollars, our budget focused on funding the core functions of state government, streamlining services and targeting resources to programs with a statewide scope or impact,” Brock said in a statement.

Local takeover proposed

The Senate budget proposes letting the city or county buy the museum’s 50-year-old building for $1 and take over the operation.

But that’s not something either local government can afford to do, said Whiteville Mayor Terry Mann, adding that the city is already considering a tax hike to cover necessary expenses in the coming year.

“Our city can’t do it, and the county manager says there’s no way they can do it, either,” Mann said.

The proposed cut to the Forestry Museum follows reductions in state funding for other historic sites and museums, including the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer, which is now developing a plan under which it may become self-supporting.

Visitors to the 15,000-square-foot forestry museum can see artifacts such as samples of massive tree growth rings and fossils from a nearby dig. The space also holds two traveling exhibits: “A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization,” on the history and use of wood throughout the world, and a rainforest exhibit developed by Meg Lowman, director of the Nature Research Center at the Museum of Natural Sciences and a world-renown forest canopy expert.

The museum operates seven days a week and is free, with the exception of occasional special events. The museum also offers a Science Cafe for teens and other educational services to school groups.

Friends of the N.C. Museum of Forestry, a nonprofit group, is ready to launch a capital campaign to raise money for the first real permanent exhibit for the museum. It will be titled “Our Forest, Our Time,” said Butch Blanchard, the group’s president.

“Our plan is to tell the story of the longleaf pine and the history of naval stores development,” said Blanchard, referring to the tar and turpentine industry that predates the Revolutionary War and led to North Carolina’s “Tar Heels” nickname.

Whiteville lies in the coastal plain, an area once covered in pine forest that stretched from Maine to Georgia. International Paper employs about 1,000 workers in nearby Riegelwood, and many other area residents still grow trees on tracts large and small for additional income.

A history of controversy

The Forestry Museum has faced controversy since its inception in 1998, when former state Sen. R.C. Soles sponsored a $1 million state allocation to get the project off the ground.

Nearly half the initial funding was used to purchase a downtown Whiteville building from First Citizens Bank, where Soles served on the board of directors. The sale price – about $200,000 below the tax value of the property – made it a bargain for the state, Soles said at the time.

Support for the museum was threatened in 2011, when Gov. Bev Perdue omitted the operating money from her initial budget proposal, though she later reinstated it.

The museum is operated through the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and funded through the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

State budget figures show the museum has four full-time employees: a director, an administrative assistant, a curator and an educator. Altogether, the four salary and benefits packages total $238,700.

Other budgeted items include contracted services, travel and general operating costs that total $74,250, with supplies, furniture and equipment purchases making up the remaining expenditures.

State Sen. Michael P. Walters, whose 13th district includes Columbus County, said he was surprised by the proposal to eliminate the museum’s state funding. Walters, who described himself as a third-generation forester, said he thinks a museum dedicated to forestry and forest products is a natural for the area and said he will try to have the money reinstated.

“It has had great response from the public, especially for the opportunities it gives to school children,” said Walters, a Democrat from Proctorville in neighboring Robeson County.

The Senate proposal still faces a vote in the House and a signature from the governor before it becomes law.

Elder: 919-829-4528

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