N.C. tourist sites under review

The North Carolina legislature is conducting a sweeping review of the state's attractions - from museums and parks to the state fair and the zoo - to determine whether they should be combined under a single agency and whether their staffing, hours and admissions fees should be adjusted.

The legislature's study, which is scheduled to be released in March, follows budget cuts this summer that forced some state-owned tourist attractions to cut hours or special programs, lay off workers and increase admission fees. It has many working at the sites worried about their future.

As part of the reorganization of state government by the new Republican legislative majority, the lawmakers ordered its legislative staff - the Program Evaluation Division - to conduct a study of all state attractions and report back in time for the legislature to act on the recommendations when it returns in May. A draft report may be ready as early as February.

The study asks whether all the sites "can be consolidated in one department" and also to "review all sources of revenue generated by these attractions, including admissions fees, donations, and concessions sales" and to examine "revenue daily trends for these attractions to determine optimal operating schedules."

State Sen. Andrew Brock of Mocksville said the review was needed.

"I'm kind of excited about the evaluation of some our museums and sites," said Brock, who is chairman of the Senate appropriations committee overseeing general government.

Brock said that while some attractions "are doing a fantastic job" and deserve more state funding, there are others that need closer scrutiny.

"We've got some others, you've got 100 people on staff, you've got few visitors and only a few volunteers," Brock said. "Are people sitting around not doing anything? Are we paying for positions and nobody has a real job? Those are the ones we will have to take a good hard look at. Some of them, to be honest, we have to make sure it was not political patronage over the years.''

Brock cited Tryon Palace in New Bern, a pet of Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, as an example of a historic site that might be overstaffed. The palace is a replica of the home of Royal Governor William Tryon, originally built in 1770. The palace, which recently opened a history center, drew 172,264 people during the fiscal year ending June 30. (Department of Cultural Resources officials said the Tryon Palace complex, which includes 41 buildings and had 85 employees when the history center opened in October 2010, now has 59 employees. That number is scheduled to be reduced to 31 employees unless funding is restored in the next budget year.)

Other historic sites, such as the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum near Greensboro, the site of an early school for African-American girls, is so rarely visited that it costs the state $30 per visitor, Brock said. The museum drew 11,658 visitors during the last fiscal year, although officials noted the site had undergone construction during that period.

It also may not make sense, Brock said, that two museums sitting mere yards apart - the N.C. Museum of History and the Museum of Natural Sciences - are operated by separate state agencies. The history museum is operated by Department of Cultural Resources and the natural science museum is operated by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Besides the history museum, Cultural Resources operates the state's 27 historic sites, and the N.C. Museum of Art. DENR operates the natural science museum, the state's three aquariums, the state zoo in Asheboro and the state's 35 parks. The Department of Agriculture operates the State Fair.

DENR secretary Dee Freeman said he welcomed a study. "I think we have a great story to tell about the attractions in our agency."

Freeman said it was a natural fit for those attractions to be housed in an agency dealing with the environment and natural resources. He said they have won national recognition under DENR's direction.

"I do not know where the study the legislature has mandated is going," Freeman said. "We don't necessarily see any efficiencies or savings in moving these particular assets from our department. We will be very interested in seeing what program evaluation concludes in its study"

The study comes while DENR is still reeling from the deepest cuts of any major department in state government from the budget passed by the legislature earlier this year.

Linda Carlisle, the secretary of Cultural Resources, said as a businesswoman, she saw none of the usual advantages for consolidation - from a program point of view or to obtain efficiencies. She said neither DENR or Cultural Resources would be a good fit to administer each other's attractions.

She also cautioned about cutbacks or fee increases to museums and historical sites at a time when many family budgets are tight.

"I think North Carolina has a level of cultural and historical resources that are unsurpassed nationally," Carlisle said. "We are known and envied across the country. Our citizens have access to a wide range of assets, most of which are free. In today's environment that means a lot to families."

She said any effort to limit hours to historic sites would come at a time when the department is trying to increase its outreach to schools.

Although the law setting up the study calls for the possibility of putting all the state attractions under one agency, Brock said, that may not be where the legislature is headed.

It makes sense, Brock said, to continue to have the State Fair run by the state Department of Agriculture, headed by Republican commissioner Steve Troxler, because of its experience in farm matters.

"There is not a push to put them all under one roof," Brock said. "It might be better where they all are now. But would it be better if they shared resources? We want to evaluate each one and look at how we can do it better."

Among other things, Brock said, the study will look at whether some sites should have shorter or different hours, should charge higher fees and should offer gifts and other services to defray costs.

"We are not going to get rid of our history," Brock said. "But we may limit their hours, how many days they're open and also look at their expenses while they are open."