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Virginia Beach again considers cutting support to historic homes, museums

Ed. note — This story was updated to reflect the difference in funding sources between the aquarium and historic houses within the overall departmental budget and correct an erroneous percentage in a description of funding changes.

BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE

VIRGINIA BEACH — Virginia Beach’s historic museums face reduced funding in the proposed city operating budget, and advocates say they intend to argue during a budget hearing this evening to get that money back.

The City Council restored funding in the last spending plan after an outcry, but City Manager Dave Hansen has submitted another proposal that reduces staff positions for city-run sites, which would be open only two days per week, and it removes a quarter of the funding provided to two city-owned, nonprofit-run historic museums.

The cuts represent a shift in the city’s philosophy regarding the homes toward events that attract more people to the sites. A hearing on the overall budget proposal is scheduled for 6 p.m., this evening, at City Hall.

Representatives of two city-owned, privately-run historic sites – the Old Coast Guard Station and the Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum at deWitt Cottage – said they were not aware that their city support could be slashed by 25 percent until the plan was released.

“It’s a bit of a surprise,” said Kathryn Fisher, executive director of the Old Coast Guard Station, a museum housed in the 1903 lifesaving station on Atlantic Avenue.

“The city support does mean a lot to us,” she added on Monday, April 17. “We feel we are telling the story of the city’s maritime history. No one else is going to tell that story.”

Al Henley, a member of the board of director’s at the Atlantic Waterfowl Heritage Museum, said the museum uses city funds to help share the history of the 1895 deWitt Cottage and the heritage of waterfowl, once a source of prosperity in Princess Anne County.

“I really believe it’s a lack of education about the value these historic house have not only to all the residents of Virginia Beach but also the thousands of visitors who come to these houses,” Henley said on Monday, April 17. “They just love Virginia history.”

Henley said there was no notification cuts again would be proposed.

Lynn Hightower, executive director of the Atlantic Waterfowl Heritage Museum, said the cut would represent about $13,000 of the museum’s roughly $110,000 annual budget.

“We’ve had no communications with them at all about the budget,” he said on Tuesday, April 18.

He said there is a meeting scheduled on Thursday, April 20, with the city to discuss the budget.

“I hope we can repair this relationship,” he said.

The city’s historic museums are either overseen by or partially funded through the aquarium and historic houses department. The department’s proposed spending plan – and, due to the popularity of the aquarium, anticipated revenue – largely focus upon the aquarium itself.

A few of the people interviewed for this story noted that they certainly support the aquarium, a successful public-private partnership and an attraction near the Oceanfront. 

Of the current $11.57 million budget for the department, only about $748,000 or 6.5 percent is directed to historic homes. The proposal slashes that funding from $748,000 to about $604,000, or 19 percent below the current level of support. The proposed overall budget for the department rises from $11.57 million to $12.58 million.

There is a difference between the aquarium and the museums when it comes to funding sources. The historic museums get money from the general fund whereas revenue generated by the aquarium pays its bills in the budget, said Cynthia Whitbred-Spanoulis, deputy director of the aquarium.

On Monday, April 17, she said the proposed cuts should not have come as a surprise because Hansen in 2016 challenged the history museums to find new operating models.

The goal has been to have fewer operating hours but focus upon special events that bring people to the sites, she said, speaking of houses that the city directly oversees. The houses also benefit from nonprofit support.

Whitbred-Spanoulis said though the historic museums are a small part of the department’s budget, the proposed cuts are reasonable.

“I would argue to the city manager’s point that any amount is important because it’s taxpayer money and it should be used as efficiently as possible,” she said.

She said the department did not receive inputs from the historic houses and museums during the budget process. The change to focus upon events rather than hours is going into effect at city-run sites such as Thoroughgood House, Francis Land House and Lynnhaven House, though some sites are under renovation.

An Easter egg hunt this month was a clear success, bringing 1,013 people to Francis Land House for one event compared to 25 or 30 people per week, she said.

The Atlantic Waterfowl Heritage Museum and the Old Coast Guard Station receive a budget “pass-through” via the department, she said.

“I did not personally tell them cuts were coming,” Whitbred-Spanoulis said.

The aquarium would receive eight new full-time positions in the proposed budget paid for by ticket price increases at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. The ticket price hikes are scheduled to go into effect in late May.

The city-run historic house museums, which may see operating days reduced from six days a week to Fridays and Saturdays only, also benefit from volunteer support.

“At friends of the historic houses, with members dating back to the mid-1980s, we regret seeing budget changes that will make these wonderful historic houses less available to the public,” said Dr. Rick Klobuchar, president of the Friends of the Virginia Beach Historic Houses, in an interview on Monday, April 17.


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