Heritage commission cuts budget, staff raising concerns in community

With federal funding drying up and state funding getting tighter, the Montana Heritage Commission has cut five of 12 full-time positions and trimmed their budget by more than a third.

However, those cuts have some in Virginia City worried about what the future of the heritage commission will mean for business in town.

“The potential impact to the tourism vitality is probably pretty significant and it could be that it will be fine, but there’s this time of unknowing,” said Virginia City resident Sheri Jarvis.

However, the reorganization at the heritage commission was nearly two years in coming, said acting executive director Marilyn Ross.

Essentially, the heritage commission operated for years on federal grants, state bed tax money, money from license plate sales and onsite operations in Virginia City, Nevada City and Reeder’s Alley in Helena.

That all added up to about $1.4 million. However, with the federal grants being cut, something in the budget and operation at the heritage commission had to give, Ross said. So to guide the reorganization, the heritage commission officials went back to the legislation the formed the organization back in 1997.

“That’s what prompted looking at all the staff positions – all of the functions,” she said. “The commission went and used as their basis the legislation that created us – that charged the heritage commission with two primary functions: one, preservation of the buildings and two, to make this resource economically self-sustaining. We looked at every staff position within the organization and looked at how it fit in with either one of those functions.”

As a result, the heritage commission closed their office in Reeder’s Alley in Helena and eliminated three full-time positions at their offices in Virginia City. One full-time position was eliminated after the employee left this spring, Ross said.

The staff in Virginia City is now at seven full-time employees, she said.

“The positions that were eliminated, they have been folded into others that are still here,” Ross said.

Along with cutting positions, the heritage commission has had other operational savings including hiring fewer seasonal employees and cutting back on marketing and advertising for this summer.

That marketing cut back has Abby Thomas, executive director at the Virginia City Chamber of Commerce worried.

In the past, the chamber of commerce partnered with the heritage commission on promoting businesses and events in the town. This year, as the heritage commission has stepped back, the chamber’s felt more pressure to step forward.

“Their cuts force us to increase our advertising budget,” Thomas said. “They’ve dropped a ton of advertising this year.”

The heritage commission also closed their visitor center at the train depot at the lower end of town, which also helps the chamber promote businesses within the community, she said.

It’s hard to say if the heritage commission’s lack of marketing this summer has impacted business, Thomas said. But it’s certainly something the chamber of commerce is going to have to factor in when putting together their budget for next year. To that end, more communication from the heritage commission about their future plans would help.

“I would say that communications are lacking with the heritage commission,” she said. “It’s very confusing to keep up on what is happening.”

Marketing and promotion are certainly a priority for the heritage commission, despite pulling back from both a bit this summer, Ross said.

“We stepped back from that this year because of the transition we were in,” she said.

However, going forward the heritage commission is going to work on cultivating regional marketing partnerships with groups, not just local ones, she said.

“We are hoping and planning as we move forward to developing more effective partnerships with chambers of commerce,” Ross said.

Additionally, the heritage commission will be looking at partnerships with other heritage tourism groups around the region, she said.

But beyond that, the plan for the heritage commission moving forward is still a work in progress, Ross said.

This lack of formal or communicated plan for the future of the heritage commission has Jarvis concerned.

“There’s not a lot of information coming from the heritage commission as far as what their plan is,” Jarvis said. “That’s just a really frustrating and fearful dynamic because nobody seems to know what the long-term plan is … This community and this region is inextricably linked to the heritage commission and their success and it seems like we would be the first people to know what the plan is.”

Though a formal long-term plan may not exist, the focus will be bringing the heritage commission in line with their legislative mandate to care for the cultural resources and become economically viable, Ross said.

To that end, the heritage commission is wrapping up interviews for a new executive director, she said.

“Clearly I think we are looking for someone who has experience in both the management of a cultural resource but certainly has a strong business background as well – marketing, promotion that sort of thing,” Ross said.

The heritage commission will have a regular meeting Sept. 15 at 9 a.m. at the Rehearsal Hall in Virginia City. The new executive director will be selected then, she said.

And despite all the changes, Ross is convinced the heritage commission is on better footing moving forward.

“I know how difficult all of these changes have been,” she said. “Change is always hard and it’s been a difficult transition but I think the entire commission is feeling much more confident in the long-term sustainability of the resource.”

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