Colonial Williamsburg in Financial Straits?

If you’re interested in Colonial Williamsburg and/or historic preservation and education, then make sure to read several accounts of the recent news coming from the world’s largest restoration village. I’ve read through four different accounts of the news and opinion on this subject just to get a handle on how and why the village finds itself in financial red ink.

The undisputed fact is that the village had been bleeding money in recent years, culminating in a $54 million dollar loss in 2016, even though attendance was up by 10 percent over 2015. To cover the yearly deficit, the village has been borrowing from its foundation at a rate that would put it in bankruptcy within the next eight years. The foundation’s CEO, Mitchell Reiss, blames their current poor financial state on business decisions made in the past, less American history being taught in schools, and changing times and tastes. Let’s talk about these three issues, one at a time.

  • In his letter to the public, Mr. Reiss did not disclose all the details of their business plan, however it is public record that they broke ground on an expansion of one facility costing $40 million, and a different project on the calendar that will cost another $20 million (funded by Forrest Mars, Jr., famous for being an heir to the Mars candy fortune). Both projects are considered essential to Colonial Williamsburg’s core mission: education and preservation. To keep these plans on track, the village intends to eliminate 71 jobs by the end of the year. It is noteworthy that no interpreter jobs will be cut, however other functions (commercial venues like the golf course, retail, and real estate management) will be outsourced. This may be what Mr. Reiss means when he mentions past business decisions.
  • He also claims that schools have cut back on the teaching of American history. Perhaps what he’s referring to is that since 2002, the No Child Left Behind syllabus stressed improving scores in math and reading at the expense of other subjects. Schools had a monetary incentive to shift away from history courses. In addition, aspiring teachers were encouraged to be certified in social studies as a better career move than one in history.
  • As for changing times and tastes, a Washington Post Op/Ed writer blamed the village for  “whitewashing” colonial history. With only a very few exceptions, visitors will walk away from a day at the village with an understanding of how only one race of people lived their lives in the 18th century. Marlene and I visited the village a few years ago, and I came away with the same impression. But more than that, as parents I think we’ve let our children be overly swayed by distractions that do little to prepare them for a future as responsible, knowledgeable citizens and leaders. Video games, smart phones, social media, pop culture, and everything else that companies and investors can make a buck on, virally find their way into our homes and schools.Companies and organizations talk about their mission and core values. Isn’t it just as important for families to talk to their kids about their mission and core values, even if it means that they have to get off social media, even for just a few hours a day?

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