Historical Society and Historic Preservation Division unlikely to merge

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(Host) For the past several years, the state Division for Historic Preservation and the Vermont Historical Society have been experiencing budget shortages. One proposed answer was to combine the two groups.

But as VPR’s Steve Zind reports, a committee created to study the idea couldn’t agree on the issue.

(Zind) Each organization is experiencing budget problems for different reasons. In the case of the Division for Historic Preservation, half of their budget comes from admission fees and sales at the state’s ten historic sites. The number of visitors to those sites has been declining, so the division has turned to the state for more money – about $56,000 more in the current fiscal year.

The problems are more serious for the non-profit Vermont Historical Society. Its budget has grown 107 percent in the past five years. That’s due primarily to the new Vermont History Center in Barre and the renovation of the Pavilion Museum in Montpelier. In the last fiscal year, state funding for the society had to be increased by 40 percent to just over $340,000 to help make up for the shortfall.

Robert Hoffman is Vermont’s Secretary of Finance.

(Hoffman) “The likelihood of dramatic infusions of money into either of these organizations is not probable at all.”

(Zind) Hoffman chaired a summer study committee that looked into the idea of turning all or some of the Division of Historic Preservations responsibilities over to the Vermont Historical Society; in particular the management of the state’s historic sites. In the end, the committee couldn’t reach a consensus because members of the two groups couldn’t agree.

Members like Jane Lendway of the Division for Historic Preservation felt there was no benefit to having the Historical Society do what the her division has been doing.

(Lendway) “It was so unclear that the Historical Society would be able to make any improvements to the way the historic sites are run that they didn’t have a solid plan at all.”

(Zind) Lendway says the Division of Historic Preservation has a plan in place to close its budget gap, including revenue from the newly leased cheese factory at the Calvin Coolidge Historic site and raising some admission fees. She says the proposed consolidation wouldn’t have saved the state any money.

Kevin Graffagnino is director of the Vermont Historical Society. Graffagnino says there was merit in the consolidation idea – not for because it would have saved money but because a it could enable historic preservationists to speak with one voice.

(Graffagnino) “Perhaps a more unified voice would help increase the amount of resources flowing in.”

(Zind) Graffagnino says the decision to establish the new Vermont History Center in Barre and renovate the Pavilion Museum have helped to safely preserve and to increase interest in Vermont history, even if it has generated red ink for the society. He says the Historical Society’s income has increased but it’s still not enough to meet the society’s shortfall.

Graffagnino says the answer lies in finding additional outside income and convincing the state to increase its share of the society’s budget. He points out that years ago, a much higher percentage of the organization’s budget was paid by the state.

The society has at least one friend in high places. Governor Jim Douglas once served on the VHS board. The study committee’s report is now in the hands of the Legislature.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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