How does a site make revenue if it is only open three days a week?
That’s the concern many had Tuesday night at a meeting about the future of the Chief Vann House in Murray County.
State officials are pushing for state parks and historic sites to average 75 percent self-sufficiency by 2015, and only be 25 percent funded by the state’s taxpayer funds in a plan called D-15, which stands for Direction 2015. That means local officials are going to have to start running their sites more like a business.
“We’ve been given this mandate,” said David Gomez, site manager of both the Vann House and the New Echota historic site in Gordon County. “We have to figure out how to be self-sufficient while honoring our mission ... That doesn’t mean we’re going to put a big water slide out here. We want to maintain the site but figure out how to make money, too ... We know we’re not going to get those funds (from the state). We’ve been told we have to get them ourselves.”
But the problem many in attendance had was the site is only open to the public three days a week (Thursday through Saturday) and has been since major budget cuts in 2009 that cut staff and operating hours.
“I see the time period it’s open,” said Dianne Minter, who lives near the site and attended the meeting. “It’s here empty more than it’s open. It’s missing a big opportunity (for visitors) not being open on Sundays.”
Visitation went from 12,099 in 2008 to 12,226 in 2009 down to 10,742 in 2010, the latest year provided at the meeting. Gomez said visitation has dropped even more than that, but didn’t have an exact figure.
Murray County Historian Tim Howard said he believes opening Sundays would help bring revenue back to the site. Before the cuts in 2009, Sundays were a popular day to tour the historic home.
“In January and February (when visitation is lowest), our biggest days were Sunday afternoons,” Howard said. “We’re talking about getting our visitation numbers back up.”
Gomez said he hopes to be able to open the site Wednesday through Sunday through peak months and cut back on hours from November to February when there’s not as much activity.
Even if the Vann House opens more often through the week, having enough people at the site to run it becomes an issue. The site has one full-time employee, Julia Autry, and four part-time members, one of whom shares his time with other sites in North Georgia. If a staff member is giving a tour, then another needs to be at the entrance. That leaves no one available for routine maintenance, such as mowing the grass or repairing items.
“We’re depending more and more on part-time employees, but they don’t have the time to devote to training and don’t have the experience,” Gomez said. “It’s starting to affect the parks overall.”
Minter and her husband, Barry, agreed the site needs more help.
“You can’t maintain this much acreage with one full-time and one part-time person working,” Barry Minter said.
“You need more people working,” Dianne Minter said. “When you have a house over 200 years old, things have to be done.”
Also, because the state sites have to spend capital funds on repairs and maintenance, there is no money to invest in large projects, such as adding on to gift shops, which could generate more money through sales, Gomez said.
“There are limits to what can be done, but we can’t let that stop us,” he said.
There are several positives at the Vann House. Among those are the Christmas candlelight tours and the Vann House Days events in July.
At a time of year when park visitation is typically down — July, because of the heat — the Vann House brings in 15 percent of its annual revenue, Gomez said.
“Vann House Days has big numbers of people,” he said. “Hundreds and hundreds come out for that program. It generates a lot of money and has good community support. December usually quietens down, but because of the program, you have a big jump in December revenue also thanks to the efforts being done here.”
Gomez said there are no plans to discontinue those programs, but he doesn’t think adding more large events annually is the answer either. He suggested adding several other smaller programs throughout the year.
“Big events like you do here take a lot of time, membership and money to get it done,” he said. “Sometimes it may be better to go with some smaller programs more often or in addition to the larger ones.”
Part of the answer may be in increasing admission fees, increasing the number and types of events at the site each year, and diversifying retail sales, Gomez said.
Another idea suggested by Gomez is increasing the Vann House’s presence as a historical site along I-75.
“If you look at the overall traffic, the majority is individual families,” he said. “Some school groups come through, but it’s the individuals, and a lot are coming off I-75. I think we’re missing a big opportunity on 75. We need to market. We need a descriptive sign.”
Gomez said he also thinks partnering with local hotels and motels to help promote the park would help bring in traffic.
Gomez and Autry stressed the importance of volunteers at the Vann House. Volunteers are needed to help give tours and to help with routine maintenance.