Monday, June 30, 2008

CT - The State Takes Over The Old State House

Well, I am certainly all for historic preservation, and I think it is of utmost importance that our history be shared and communicated to the masses, but I am not liking yet another State bailout of private historical enterprise or "historical welfare".

The Courant reports this:
The state and the city of Hartford finally reached an agreement Friday that paves the way for the state to take over the operation of the Old State House, preventing the threatened closure of the historic downtown building.

The city owns the landmark, but it has been operated by the financially strapped Old State House Association, which has managed to keep the building open only with an infusion of state cash.

Amid squabbling over the wording of a long-term lease, the two sides had been unable to reach an agreement for nearly a year. But the process became more urgent when the state threatened to discontinue its funding on Tuesday — the start of the new fiscal year. Without that money, the famed building would have been closed.....

The city has agreed to a 99-year lease to allow the state to run the operations....

The state came to the rescue of the landmark last year, averting its closing by injecting $500,000 for its operation. More money has been set aside for the state to operate it in the future, but state officials had said the funding would not be released without an agreement with the city.
The State recently gave some money to keep the Mark Twain House afloat too, to the tune of $50,000. The organization that runs that historic site is also in financial straits, and it has been struggling to meet its yearly budget and repay loans which resulted from a 2003 expansion. In my humble opinion, the expansion was nice, but it was a bit overdone and certainly was a more costly venture then they should have overtaken. But be that as it may, they have to deal with the consequences now.

Ok - so here we have very important historical places - places that are vital to our tourism and culture and they seemed to be unable to manage their books, nor does it seem that they have put any money aside to be used for these tough financial times. While it is clear that many historic sites nationwide are in some sort of financial difficulty, one would think that the way out of this would be all out guerilla fundraising as well as deep cost-cutting to their budgets. Instead they look to the State and the taxpayers to bail them out. The State should not always be the answer.

I think attendance is a big issue. I haven't been tot he Old State House in years, even though it is a pretty interesting place. The State House is hard to access. It's amid busy downtown with little inexpensive or convenient parking and it is surrounded by bus stops and very little else to draw any interest. People don't want to use the bus to go into Hartford. Some of the connections are downright miserable. There aren't really any good reasonable or especially healthy food places to eat nearby either. The Atheneum no doubt has similar issues.

The Mark Twain House is also pretty cool, but it's expensive and so I've only been there a few times in all the years I've lived in the Hartford area.

You have to give people a really good reason to go to these places. School groups have dropped their field trip frequency too. It's costly and if they can't justify how a visit will help boost their CMT scores then they won't visit. It's a sad situation. Unfortunately people don't care much for historical places and if the public doesn't care then it will be hard to get them to support it with their visits or their dollars.

The sad fact is that we need to have these places, but we also shouldn't just rely on State handouts to keep them afloat. If the state wants to do something to help they ought to do a better job of public relations on promoting history in CT. Perhaps they can subsidize admissions on certain days to encourage people to visit. Maybe a ticket stub for the museum can be used for a discount for future bus passes or other incentives. There are a host of things the State can do to promote these sites without just giving them a check. Maybe they can help these organizations to make a larger appeal to the citizens of this state. Perhaps they can encourage CT citizens to support these historical treasures on their own, either by visiting or by a campaign for everyone to "send $10 to the Old State House to keep it's doors open". Or maybe they can promote CT History more in our schools and through other organizations. We need some new exciting events like CT History Days to promote these places - and to bring back events like Mark Twain Days.

We have to get creative if these historical gems are to survive.