It's a question Traverse City officials have struggled to answer for years: How much of a priority is preserving the city's History Center, and – more importantly – who should pay for it?
At the end of 2012, the Traverse City Commission officially ceased funding the 108-year-old facility on Sixth Street, home to a historical museum, local archives, artifacts from the defunct Con Foster Museum and a variety of educational programs and exhibits. The city owns the building, which began as a Carnegie-endowed library in 1905, and had been contributing approximately $112,000 annually to its maintenance and operation.
But after commissioners argued the facility did not constitute a “core city service,” History Center leadership was challenged to find a way to make the operation self-sustaining.
Bill Kennis, executive director of the History Center and a former Detroit-based entrepreneur, was brought on in August 2011 to reorient the organization as a more business-focused operation. Kennis helped facilitate an agreement with the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) for $100,000 in tax increment financing funds to sustain the History Center through June 2014, covering the city's cut funding.
What happens after June 2014, however, is now the History Center's primary concern. The DDA board will consider approving another $50,000 contribution in spring 2014, sustaining the facility through the end of next year, but has not officially committed to that amount – nor to any funding beyond that.
To ensure the non-profit organization can continue to meet its $300,000 annual budget, Kennis is focused on what he and other board members consider the Center's key to survival: Proving the History Center's value to the community, and engaging its support.
“I've seen what the people of Traverse City can do when they want something,” says Kennis. “Look at the City Opera House, the State Theatre, the Grand Traverse Commons. If our community rallies behind us, we can't fail.”
Kennis' first task is to convince residents the History Center matters – and is still relevant. To that end, he lays out a persuasive case: Since 2010, the History Center has nearly tripled its number of annual visitors, from 17,750 in 2010 to 58,650 in 2012.
Approximately 50 percent of visitors are from out-of-state; Kennis calls History Center staff “goodwill ambassadors” to such guests, connecting them to Traverse City via its colorful history. An average of 350 researchers annually access History Center archives, and the organization has published four books to date on the history of the community.
But the History Center isn't just grounded in the past. Aware of an increasingly tech-savvy audience, the organization recently launched a Virtual History Tour, an app-based tour for smart phones featuring nine iconic Traverse City locations (Kennis says up to 50 sites could eventually be featured). New and revamped exhibits and features – including Magical History Tours, the popular Lego Carnivals and an expanded Festival of Trains – are also helping attract bigger, younger crowds, many encountering the Center for the first time.
Those increased admissions and memberships are the first step in putting the History Center on the path to self-sustainability. But Kennis says community donations and financial support will ultimately prove the deciding factor in the facility's success.
“There's only so much federal money to support these types of programs,” he explains. “If the community doesn't support us, we could eventually go away.”
To help engage residents with the History Center and its many services, the History Center will host the first annual Historic Traverse City Jubilee September 20-21 in downtown Traverse City. The community event will feature fire engine and tractor rides, historical reenactments, an old-fashioned ice cream social, a vintage baseball exhibition and classic car and antique displays.
For Kennis, the Jubilee represents a chance to show residents the richness and importance of Traverse City's history – as well that of the organization preserving it.
“We hold the stories of 163 years of history,” says Kennis. “It's the heart of a community to remember...those who have gone before, celebrate the achievements of those living today and inspire future leaders through those wonderful stories. It's crucial for a community to have a sense of its history. That's where we come in.”