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Historical Groups Left in Lurch by Funding Cuts

By Richard Robbins, Pittsburgh TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, July 25, 2010

Museum inn keeper and Curator Jim Koontz, of Ligonier, builds a birdhouse that is being modeled after the Laughlintown museum's cook house. Barry Reeger/Tribune-Review

Just two years ago, Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, the Oakland landmark honoring veterans of all of America’s wars, was on the receiving end of a nice piece of change from Pennsylvania: $260,000.

In 2009, the state’s largesse shrank dramatically, to a mere $30,000.

This year, Soldiers & Sailors is in line to get nothing, a result of a state budget that eliminated grants for historical sites, from the 218-acre Bushy Run Battlefield in Penn Township to the smallest local historical society.

The funding cuts will have a huge impact on groups devoted to local history, according to Ronald Gancas, Soldiers & Sailors president and CEO.

He foresees severe retrenchments, including the continuation of a wage freeze in effect at Soldiers & Sailors since 2007 and the need to recruit and mobilize even more volunteers. The museum’s education department has gone from five full-time and two part-time employees a few years ago to one full-time and one part-time employee today.

“If this trend continues, it will take 50 years to put things back together,” Gancas said.

The 2009 state budget contained $1.7 million for regional and local history, a sum that the state House added after several months in which it appeared there would be no funding for historical groups.

But this time around, there was no late change to rescue local history grants, either for general operations or special projects.

There was lip-service support for public history from members of the General Assembly but nothing more, said Deborah Filipi, executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations.

“We are in a crisis, there is no doubt about it,” Filipi said. “There are some museums that are already hurting. I suspect some of these are not going to survive.”

Jeremy Burnworth, president of the Fayette County Historical Society, said the funding cuts could not come at a worse time for his group, which conducted a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday at its new museum and headquarters in a renovated 1700s building.

“This is really bad timing,” Burnworth said, adding that the historical society will be “held back without” the state dollars. He was counting on $10,000 from the state and a $10,000 match from the county to help staff the museum and the Searight Tollhouse, both along the National Road.

“We were on track” for the funding, Burnworth said. Now the game plan is to utilize volunteers in place of paid staff.

Tina Yandrick, director of operations for the Ligonier Valley Historical Society, said the expiration of funding meant elimination of summer internships cutting general maintenance “over and above the usual.”

Yandrick noted Compass Inn, a restored Laughlintown stagecoach stop built in 1799, “always” needs refurbishing.

Nevertheless, she said, “we are fortunate we have Compass Inn,” a money-maker for the society that helps to offset the loss of state money.

State funding was “always important money for us,” said Lisa C. Hays, executive director of the Westmoreland County Historical Society, adding that money has been so scarce, “I’m trying to get through this month.”

“We’ve already tightened our belts a lot,” Hays said. She forecast the potential for shorter business hours beginning in 2011 to “save staff time.” However, because the society likely will make a greater effort to raise private dollars, Hays was uncertain if savings are actually possible.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633