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In the past year, living history museums and historic sites throughout the country have made some very public business decisions to improve their bottom line.The hope is those moves are not obvious to the paying public and do not take away from the sites core mission.“As difficult as these decisions are, for as much as they impact our Colonial Williamsburg colleagues today, it would be far worse for the large majority of our employees and the future of the foundation if we did nothing and just hoped that our financial fortunes would somehow change next year, or the year after,” wrote Colonial Williamsburg President and CEO Mitchell Reiss in a late June letter announcing the organization’s decision to lay off 71 people and outsource several functions, affecting another 262 employees.Since Colonial Williamsburg’s announcement, the Gazette has combed through publicly available tax records and audits dating back to the early 2000s and reviewed the orgnaization’s annual reports from as far back as the 1970s to get a clearer picture of how it operates and where its financial troubles originated.A review of other nonprofit living history museums and historic sites shows Colonial Williamsburg stands out both in its size and the lengths it goes to cater to visitors.
Despite a written policy of only withdrawing 6 percent of its endowment each year, Colonial Williamsburg has used as much as 12.1 percent (in 2014) to offset operating deficits, according to Reiss and the organization’s IRS forms. George Washington's home, Mount Vernon, commands a hilltop overlooking the Potomac River. The 500-acre property is not open to the general public.Virginia Tourism Corp CEO Rita Mc Clenny said she is aware of Colonial Williamsburg’s decision to outsource and she believes staying static isn’t an option.“They have to look at what’s working and what’s not working and make those determinations based on consumer demand, that’s key,” she said. Rob Shenk, the site’s senior vice president for visitor engagement, credits the group’s core mission of telling Washington’s stories as the true driver of visitation.“Our competition isn’t just other historic sites,” he said.“Change is something that has to happen — you take calculated risks — and you try to minimize any downside.”Here are some ways living history museums and historic sites are changing to address financial pressures: George Washington's home, Mount Vernon, commands a hilltop overlooking the Potomac River. “It’s everything that people are asked to do — sports, entertainment, food, all the things that happen in the Washington, D.C., area.”Even though Mount Vernon draws nearly double the number of visitors as Colonial Williamsburg each year, it’s .9 million budget is just 20 percent of CW’s.Both Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg operate with multi-million dollar endowments.