Partnership for the Sounds Faces Uncertain Future

Published 11:25 pm Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Columbia Town Board of Alderman discussed a funding request from the Partnership for the Sounds in a March 6 meeting.

The request comes at a time of financial uncertainty for the nonprofit organization.

The stated mission of the Partnership for the Sounds is to promote sustainable, community-driven economic well-being and stewardship on the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula through environmental education, and nature-based cultural tourism.

The Partnership’s primary way of carrying out this mission is through the operation of environmental education and tourism centers.

The four Partnership facilities are:

North Carolina Estuarium –Washington,NC

Columbia Theater Cultural Resources Center-Columbia,NC

Roanoke/Cashie River Center-Windsor,NC

Tyrrell County Visitor’s Center(includes Main Office)-Columbia,NC

Related facilities the Partnership has worked with include the Mattamuskeet Lodge and the Octagon House in Hyde County and the Walter B. Jones Sr. Center for the Sounds in Columbia.

Prior to the formation of the Partnership these communities lacked sites specifically dedicated to fostering tourism and thus were unable to generate significant economic benefit from it.

“In the early 1990s local and regional leaders recognized that the Albemarle-Pamlico’s most valuable assets are its natural and cultural heritages, and so worked together to develop a network of facilities would help promote the entire peninsula as a destination for eco and heritage tourism,” said Partnership for the Sounds Executive Director Jackie Peoples Woolard in a March 3 letter and funding report attached to the budget request.

Woolard noted that the building of the tourism facilities marked a unique moment of collaboration between local governments competing for the same resources.

“The network was nurtured by state leaders who saw inherent wisdom in the willingness of small communities to support themselves by supporting their neighbors,” Woolard said.

Woolard noted that since the Partnership’s inception, over $659,000 has been spent [including payroll] for Theater operations directly in Tyrrell County, plus significant additional expenditures with local business for capital projects.

The Partnership funding from the State of North Carolina was cut by 24.34 percent since 2009, and totally eliminated as of July 1,2013.

These reductions have had great impact on salaries, benefits, hours of facility operations, travel, and technology upgrades and repairs.

“We have cut staff hours, eliminated some part-time positions, repositioned work locations of staff, and imposed mandatory furloughs without pay. Our primary focus has been to absorb these cuts in areas having the least effect on our programs, facilities, community outreach, and visitor experience. We have not diluted implementation of our mission,” said Woolard in the budgetary impact section of the report.

As of June 30, 2014, virtually all of the Partnership’s reserve funds will have been used to keep the doors of its various facilities open this year.

The Partnership has reduced its budget every year since 2008.

“And this year it reached a point where we had to cut key staff positions, cancel benefits for remaining staff, slice operating costs to the bone, and underfund several areas of facility upkeep,” said Woolard.

Woolard said she believes an operating budget of approximately $42,000 for the Columbia Theater would enable the Partnership to stabilize staffing and help begin upgrading programming again.

From its opening in 1998 through June 2013, the operation of the Columbia Theater Cultural Resources Center was supported by an appropriation from the State of North Carolina to the Partnership for the Sounds.

“That funding was completely eliminated by the General Assembly this fiscal year, however, forcing us to use essentially our entire fund balance to maintain operations at PFS facilities through June 2014,” said Woolard.

Woolard noted that while the Partnership for the Sound Board and staff continue to seek all available sources of funding, assistance from the Town of Columbia is critical to survival.

“Therefore, we are requesting funding in the amount of 6000 for fiscal Year 2014-15,” said Woolard.

‘I have some concerns about the program because the Town is putting in $5000 and the County is putting in $10,000. The Visitor’s Center is supported mainly by the State DOT. That is more than enough money to operate the local facilities. I cannot help but think that a great deal of the funding is being siphoned off for support of the Estuarium in Washington,” said Mayor Michael Griffin.

Griffin stated that it may be necessary for the NCDOT to rearrange the funding for the Visitor’s Center.

Town Manager Rhett White noted that there is some time before the Town’s budget preparation to invite Woolard back before the Town to answer any questions about the future of the Partnership for the Sounds.

“Obviously there is great concern,” White said.

White and County Manager David Clegg serve on the Board of the Partnership for the Sounds.

The Partnership Board is made up of representatives from the City of Washington, Hyde County, Town of Columbia, Tyrrell County, Bertie County the Town of Windsor, Beaufort Community College,Eastern Carolina University, and several at-large members.

White noted that it takes about $300,000 a year to operate the Estuarium in Washington.

“The only sure funding they have for the Estuarium right now is $58,000,” said White.

White said that on there has been a lot of time vested in operation of the Partnership and efforts to maintain it.

“There is a reluctance to look the reality in the eye and know that maybe is time to try do something else,” said White

White said that all the local government entities involved with the Partnership for the Sounds are beginning to work on their budgets.

White explained that the City of Washington owns the building where the Estuarium is located. But they have never given any money for the operation of the Estuarium.

“The City has also never given anything for the whole Partnership. Beaufort County has never given a dime for the Estuarium. Those are issues that are out there that are troublesome,” said White.

White said that Woolard has given presentations to the Beaufort County Commissioners and the City of Washington asking for substantial amounts of funding.

“She is hoping to get that so that she can go to some of the corporations in that area and try to get additional money. But I have to tell you it is primarily a one-year fix. Nothing is laid out at this point to sustain in the long term.”
A question that has been discussed among the Partnership Board a couple of times is whether the facilities in Columbia and Bertie County are sustainable without the Partnership as an operating entity.

“To that I think the answer I think frankly is yes,” said White.

A number of Board members feel that each community with a Partnership for the Sounds facility should have an advisory group whose primary function would be to raise local money.

There is reluctance to have the proposed advisory groups have any oversight for how funds are allocated.

“Frankly I think that is unrealistic. If you are asking people to raise money you have got to give them the opportunity to have a voice. They also do not know what Beaufort County and the City of Washington is doing to do until June,” said White.

A contract with the North Carolina Department of Transportation provides $142,000 a year for operation of the Tyrrell County Visitor’s Center. These funds go the Partnership for discretionary purposes.

“With that they employ on-site one full-time and number of part-time people in administration. They closed the Gift Shop at Fish and Wildlife Portion because of the financial constraints. They significantly cut back the operation of the Theater for the same reason,” said White

The Columbia Theater Building is owned by Tyrrell County.

Tyrrell County and Columbia put in funds for operation of the Theater in estimated amounts of $19 to $20000 a year.

Midge Ogletree asked if the $142,000 from the NCDOT has any guarantee.

White mentioned that that funding could last at least one more year.

“The DOT does not operate Visitor’s Centers. They contract for the operation of them. Right now there are seven Visitor’s Centers like this one that are operated around the State. They all get the same $142,000 amount,” said White.

Helen Craddock is the only full-time employee at the Visitors Center.

“The other salaries that are funded other than the part-time people who answer visitor questions and so forth are two a week salaries or that kind of thing. That is for everything from paying bills to clerical work all those kinds of things. The first five hundred dollars of any repairs are paid for by the Partnership. Beyond that the DOT takes care of the rest,” said White.
White explained that when the Partnership was defunded by the Legislature, they pursued an opportunity to become a grassroots museum.

“This is a consortium of small museums around the State that get some State funding. They were in that program during the legislative session so they get $58,000 for that. They have had to separate their funding so that that portion is clearly for the Estuarium and nothing else. They cannot lobby for additional funds under the various provisions provided,” said White.
Mayor Griffin noted that it looks as though the Partnership is likely going to cease to exist at the end of the fiscal year.

“The Visitor’s Center here will hopefully continue to be funded by the DOT. That and the Tyrrell County and Columbia contribution should continue to support the Visitor’s Center in the way that is it is now run. As well as the Gift Shop and the Columbia Theater,” Griffin said.

White noted that Partnership officials have to narrow their focus to what is most important to their overall operation.

“The Board is aware of the fact that the attention has been on the Estuarium. It is the flagship. It is certainly expensive to operate relative to the smaller facilities,” White said.

White also said that the Partnership Board have been favorably disposed to try to get Woolard to spend her time trying to raise money to sustain the Estuarium.

“You have got raise major funds to keep that going. These other facilities could operate without that Partnership umbrella. But the Washington facility cannot operate with some significant fundraising and some significant efforts of the local communities,” said White.

White said that money that goes to the Partnership from the NCDOT is there by law.

“By law it says it goes to the Partnership for the operation of the Visitor’s Center. It could be changed, but it has to be done while the Legislature is in session,” said White.

The North Carolina legislature goes into session May 14 and it will be out of session by the first week of July.

Many issues remain should the Partnership officially dissolve.

“We understand there is a early agreement made about 20 years back regarding what to do should the Partnership end and how to get the various things involved back into the appropriate hands,” said White.

It may take a great deal of time to get a NCDOT contract in place to operate the Visitor’s Center.

White said that there was a great reluctance from the Partnership Board to move forward.

“We had the first real substantive discussion on this at a meeting two weeks ago. That was because the representative from Bertie County pushed through the discussion. He felt it was past time to have an honest conversation about it,” said White.

White said that County Manager Clegg kept asking at that mentioned meeting whether officials were certain the Partnership for the Sounds was going to even exist.

“They kept cutting David off because no one wanted to deal with that question,” said White.

The Aldermen elected not to make an official decision on Woolard’s initial request until the drafting of the Town’s budget is complete.

The Town’s Budget has to be approved by June 30.

Woolard did not attend the March 6 meeting.

However she did provide comments the following day regarding the Partnerships’ requested increase in funding.

“The Partnership is in a different funding environment and so the support we receive from our local partners is more important than ever.  Although we have asked for a modest increase in the appropriations from the Town and the County, we are keenly aware that their contributions to the Partnership are very significant within their budgets.

But in any scenario, the Town of Columbia and Tyrrell County are integral to the Partnership’s future.  Both are founding members of the organization and we would not be “the Partnership” without them.

Their support will allow us to continue operations and programs at the Theater in the upcoming year while we aggressively pursue other funding.  We believe this new revenue will augment our activities at the Theater and benefit the entire community,” said Woolard.