Bath funds restored for center

Published 12:45 am Thursday, April 28, 2011

BATH – North Carolina’s oldest town was teetering on the verge of being without a front desk for visitors.

The Historic Bath visitors center could have been shut down if proposed state budget numbers became reality.

Leigh Swain (left), site manager at Historic Bath, pauses with Bea Latham, assistant manager, Wednesday in Bath. The site was on the verge of closure before being saved by a legislative amendment. (WDN Photo/Jonathan Clayborne)

The site’s five employees would have been let go, and the doors closed to the 15,000 to 17,000 visitors who stop by every year.

But late Wednesday afternoon, Fay Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, confirmed funding for targeted historic sites had been restored because of a bipartisan effort in the Legislature.

None of the sites would be closed, Mitchell related as the House Appropriations Committee voted on amendments to the proposed state budget for the next two years.

Currently, the Bath site’s staff performs duties ranging from leading tours of some of the town’s key historic buildings to cleaning headstones.

Some Bath residents were openly questioning who would perform these duties if the cuts were approved.

Called for comment after it was learned the funding had been restored, Leigh Swain, site manager, said, “My only comment would be that I’m grateful that our legislators see the value in what we do.”

Under numbers crafted by Republican leaders in the House, it had been reported the state’s Division of Historic Sites could see its budget slashed by 30 percent in the next two-year state budget.

“This is an additional cut of $1.237 million above the reductions called for in Governor (Beverly) Perdue’s budget,” reads information from Keith Hardison, North Carolina’s director of state historic sites.

“In this worst case scenario, 6-8 sites will be closed to the public for a minimum of 2 years and possibly longer,” Hardison’s letter reads. “This would require the elimination of approximately 20 full-time permanent positions.”

The changes made in the proposed budget go back to the figures broached by Perdue, who recommended a 15-percent cut, according to Maryanne Friend, another Cultural Resources spokeswoman.

“Because that extra 15 percent reduction is no longer in play it does not mean that there won’t be reductions and restraints at all of our sites and museums in the coming year,” Friend said. “They will be operating with even greater austerity than they have been in the last year.”

Lynn Lewis, tourism development director for the City of Washington, said her tourism authority’s board of directors opposed the funding cut that would have shuttered historic sites.

“One of the strong draws that we have to this area that’s common in most of the communities of Beaufort County is the historic appeal,” said Lewis. “And people, travelers not just in North Carolina but across the country, are looking for that authentic experience. And they can still get that in Bath. They can still see the original homes, they can still experience it.”

Lewis is a Bath resident.

“I might be the tourism director for Washington, but I see the impact that tourism has in (the Bath) community,” she said.

Along with the historic site staff, the staff of arts councils around the state were able to take something of a deep breath Wednesday.

An amendment lessened to 15 percent the 23-percent cut that had been faced by arts councils.

“We can live with that,” said Joey Toler, executive director of the Beaufort County Arts Council. “I was expecting that.”

A 23-percent cut would have led to a reduction in staff or programming, Toler advised.

The local arts council already has gotten leaner in recent years, he said.

“We’re cutting back on our city and county funding,” Toler related. “We have asked for less for the past couple of years. Each year we’ve asked for less because we realize the economic situation.”

The proposed state budget could be considered by the full House next week, The Associated Press reported. The budget also requires the approval of the Senate.