Kight column: Ghost Walk cancellation sparks historic funding conversation
It’s About Time
It isn’t easy to relinquish something that was wildly successful for 18 years.
It required a Herculean effort, from a small group of dedicated volunteers, to pull off such a long-running money-making event and our organization’s best fundraiser: the annual Ghost Walk.
And yet, all that diligence netted only about $10,000 each year, a relative drop in the bucket in comparison to some nonprofit fundraisers. Sadly, volunteer capacity is no longer adequate to keep this popular, perennially sold-out event viable.
The Glenwood Springs Historical Society became dependent on the income. It helped us keep the doors of the Frontier Museum open through the winter, since a majority of our museum income comes from out-of-town tourists in the summer.
Like the summer museum admissions, the October Ghost Walk was supported by mostly non-local participants. This was a regular and welcome boost for Glenwood’s economy, with visitors coming for overnight stays, dining and shopping during the shoulder season.
So, how do we get by with $10k less than it takes to run the Frontier Museum, on an already tight budget?
Maybe we should follow and learn from the examples of two Western Slope historical societies with comparable resort economies: Aspen and Telluride.
The financial support from Aspen’s city government is $803,750, and Telluride’s municipality contributes $180,000.
Why do these two towns contribute so much more to history than the $50,000 the Glenwood Springs municipality invests in our historical society? The answer is that these communities passed a mill levy to support their historic preservation. And you may ask, “Didn’t we already try that in last year’s November election?”
Yes, we did.
To put it in perspective, the proposed 2017 property tax mill levy that a coalition of seven regional historical societies proposed was a countywide attempt to help “rise the tide” for every partner; some in worse financial shape than others. For example, the closure of the Glenwood Railroad Museum occurred shortly after that unsuccessful referendum. The Mount Sopris Historical Society could no longer afford to keep its executive director on staff.
However, had the ballot question been exclusive to the Glenwood Historical Society and limited to the city of Glenwood Springs, it would have passed. In total, 5,000 Glenwood residents — a majority — voted for the countywide ballot initiative.
It was the rest of the county that voted it down.
But we already had a city-wide funding mechanism, one our organization helped to convince voters to renew by distributing information, appearing on radio shows and talking to as many of our neighbors and friends as we could.
That same election, Glenwood Springs citizens voted to preserve our history (along with several other important priorities) by extending the longstanding Acquisitions & Improvements (A&I) sales tax for another 30 years.
Because our original contract with the city for our $50,000 of the tax is up this year, we will work to negotiate a new contract for the same amount.
Why not pursue an amount closer to the Aspen or Telluride funding models this year? After all, the amount that is directed to history from the A&I has remained the same since 1998.
Our board of directors recognize there are critical infrastructure projects that the city needs to support out of the same funding source, and we know that now is not the time to request an increase.
So, where does that leave us if we wish to remain a sustainable organization?
One option is to start selling our assets. Museums, as nonprofits, can sell their collections — particularly if they have duplicate items.
As part of the 125th anniversary celebration for the Hotel Colorado and Yampah Spa Hot Springs Vapor Caves on Sept. 15, the historical society will have some intriguing new and loaned displays in the Colorado Room. We’ll also host a silent auction.
Some of the items we’re offering are an antique roll-top desk, a 1776 Gilbert mantel clock, historic photos, Ghost Walk posters, and more.
And, starting Sept. 21, we’ll have a number of invitation-only museum open houses to explore the society’s future with members of the community.
The open houses are a follow-up on the Vision in Action strategic planning sessions we held in February of last year. Topics will include the museum’s role in the proposed limestone quarry expansion, ballot issues in the upcoming April election, and how to continue to share and preserve the rich history and the story of our one-of-a-kind resort town.
Deepak Chopra wisely said that all great changes are preceded by chaos. And, change usually comes into our lives uninvited. It’s been my experience, though, that when one door closes another door of opportunity opens. And that’s the way we’re choosing to look at the funding challenge we’re facing.
Bill Kight is the executive director of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and writes a monthly column about history. He can be reached at 970-945-4448.