Despite lawsuit, York County museums welcome more visitors

04/18/2014 8:08 PM

04/18/2014 11:00 PM

Despite a nearly year-long legal battle between York County officials and the foundation that once supported the county’s museums, officials say the museums are enjoying an increase in visitors and more engagement with those who purchase memberships.

Recent figures show that museum doors are opening to nearly 6 percent more people than last year around this time. At the Main Street Children’s Museum in Rock Hill, traffic is up 11.3 percent, and at the Museum of York County on Mount Gallant Road, visits are up 9 percent.

Monthly income from people signing up for museum member benefits is up about $4,500 compared to last year. The more than $35,000 in total membership revenue is the highest in five years.

Most of the membership growth has come from visitors signing on after visits to the Children’s Museum, which Culture and Heritage Museums Director Carey Tilley calls a “major success story.”

Tilley, a Georgia native, credits recent successes to his staff members who have added museum events and overseen several facility improvements. “I inherited an incredible staff... I know they’ve been through a lot.”

Along with a new set of museum commissioners appointed just before Tilley’s arrival, the director was charged with what he calls a “tightening of the purse strings” by York County’s elected officials.

“We’re serving more people with less money now,” he said.

After the County Council parted ways in 2011 with the former museum foundation – which shares the same name as York County’s museum system – some county museum employees were fired. The reduction in personnel costs and other spending cuts has resulted in the Culture and Heritage Museums running what leaders call a “lean” operation.

Since 2011, expenses have been cut by nearly 20 percent – or $750,000 – and museum traffic is up 18 percent.

With an average $3 million annual operational budget supported by taxpayer dollars, the museums are dependent on York County money. The level of support from York County government, Tilley said, is rare to find among museum systems.

County officials recognize that quality museums are important to quality of life, he said.

“It makes this a place where you want to live.”

New battlefield tour opening soon at Brattonsville

To further support York County’s quality of life, Tilley said, several museum projects have been completed or are close to being finished.

The History Center of York County at the McCelvey Center – commonly known as the old McCelvey School Annex property – is now open with a research resource room available to the public. The main museum on Mount Gallant Road opened a new planetarium in October with shows offered on Saturdays and throughout the week.

At Brattonsville, restoration work on the historic brick house should be finished by the summer. Museum staff members are also working on a special battlefield interpretation project at the site of Huck’s Defeat – an important battle in the Revolutionary War.

Historic Brattonsville recently welcomed 1,802 people to its annual “Children’s Day on the Farm” event, which set a record for the most people to attend a single-day event at Brattsonville.

For Tilley, Brattonsville’s success and its potential was a major draw in deciding to accept the museum director job two years ago, he said. More than 25,000 people visit Brattonsville each year.

Recently, attendance at most Brattonsville events have been up by more than 10 percent, he said. But, “we need to do a little bit more out there to get people excited.”

The Huck’s Defeat Battlefield will ceremoniously open on July 12 – the 234th anniversary of the battle. Brattonsville visitors will soon be able to take self-guided tours of the battlefield, and Tilley believes the attraction will draw history buffs from across the region.

Museum Commissioner Dennis Getter says he agrees with Tilley, adding that Brattonsville is “the county’s crown jewel.”

Increased attendance and memberships over the past year haven’t surprised him, Getter said, because he believes most museum visitors are either unconcerned or unaware of the lawsuit that’s embroiled the county and the former museum foundation during the past 10 months.

Fellow Commissioner Jonell Hagner agreed, saying museum visitors are “not concerned with the lawsuit, nor should they be.”

What visitors do care about, she said, is whether the museum is spending money wisely and providing quality facilities and events for children and families.

“When we open our doors, they’re willing to come,” she said.

Hagner is one of the many volunteers who serve as interpreters or event organizers at Brattonsville.

She described the day-to-day museum operation and morale of staff members over the past year as having a “life goes on” mentality. Volunteers and workers still show up “greatly enthused... and they do a good job,” Hagner said.

‘Fundraising arm is broken’

With a settlement pending in the lawsuit, Tilley and museum commissioners say they’re eager to put the dispute behind them and build trust back with donors.

The county and its museum commission sued the foundation last summer after years of public arguing over donated money and other assets that York County asserts should be used to benefit its museums.

The museum’s “fundraising arm is broken” and museum leadership is laying the groundwork for staff members to begin working with donors again, Getter said.

Tilley and museum commissioners told The Herald last week that they’re dedicated to rebuilding trust with donors who previously gave money for the museums as well as new people who may be interested in giving.

The only way to rebuild, Getter said, is to give donors “total disclosure.” Part of the lawsuit settlement includes the foundation agreeing to a “forensic audit” of its finances.

With that information, the commission and the museums will be able to provide a “true and honest explanation of where money went” when the foundation was handling donations, Getter said.

The future of fundraising at the museums, he said, is “100 percent dependent on the faithful conclusion of the lawsuit.”

York County’s museums do not currently have a development manager to supervise fundraising activities. Gearing up fundraising again, Tilley said, will be gradual.

Over the next few years, Tilley and the commission could roll out a new capital fundraising campaign. That campaign isn’t likely to include a plan for a new museum, which had been discussed for years before the county severed ties with the foundation.

Instead, museum officials have been focused on returning to the museums’ basic purposes: preserving the culture and heritage of York County, said Commissioner Ragin Craig.

“Any smart businessman knows that if you get away from your core mission, then you’re asking for trouble,” Craig said.

Craig, Hagner and Getter are part of an all-new commission appointed by the County Council in 2011. Through tough decisions like budget cuts, Craig said, the council “stood behind us.”

The museums “are on the right track,” he said, and need to win back people who will donate money to help the museums grow. When fundraising resumes, museum leaders hope to attract a range of donors, not just the people with the most money to give.

Tilley says he much prefers to share the story of the Culture and Heritage Museums rather than ask people for money. Still, he said he’s planning to take an active role in fundraising and will be ready to answer an essential donor question: “Are you delivering on what we gave you money for?”

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