The History Center of Olmsted County is grappling with a potential budget cut as it prepares to start work next year on a proposed $2.3 million renovation of the historic George Stopple Farm.
“If we don’t do it now, it’s in jeopardy of being lost and we lose a potential program in the future,” History Center Executive Director Wayne Gannaway said of the renovations to the 1856 farmstead that sits on the center’s site at 1195 West Circle Drive SW.
Design and construction documents are ready, and the center's officials are waiting to hear about a potential $237,000 state grant, with approximately $100,000 in the bank earmarked for the first year of renovations.
Gannaway said completing the project will require a large amount of fundraising during the upcoming years, with the need to bulk up current efforts.
At the same time, Olmsted County commissioners have been discussing scaling back the annual contribution to History Center operations.
This year’s budget cut $50,000 from the amount supported by the county’s property tax levy, but took an equal amount from county reserves.
County Administrator Heidi Welsch said it was communicated to History Center staff and the board that the reduced tax levy appropriation would be permanent and the use of reserves was considered a one-time effort to support the transition.
“This really shouldn’t be a big surprise for the history center,” she said of plans to reduce the county's annual contribution from $289,515 to $239,515.
Gannaway said it was a surprise since he thought the change in reliance on tax dollars was a one-time adjustment amid COVID cutbacks, which helped keep the county’s tax levy flat for the year,
He said the $50,000 represents a tenth of the organization’s overall 2021 revenues.
The cut, he added, could lead to the elimination of one of its six full-time or two part-time staff members, which would result in other likely changes.
“It is almost certain, but not guaranteed, that we will have to reduce our hours of operations to reflect staffing changes,” he said. “That’s really because staff won’t have time for cataloging, caring for and conserving archives, and allowing the public access and serving patrons on a regular basis as we do now.”
He said membership and other fees would likely also need to increase.
In 2020, the center’s overall revenues were $608,595, up from $704,417 in 2019, according to its latest annual report.
While the organization received $156,000 in forgivable federal Paycheck Protection Program loans and $20,000 in support from the county’s federally funded non-profit support, Gannaway said approximately $151,000 in revenue was lost due to Mayowood being closed for the year.
“The PPP covered some of the lost Mayowood revenue, but we were also closed ourselves with the lockdowns, so we had significant other activities that were sidelined during the last year and a half,” History Center Board President Christine Rule said.
Mayowood tours resumed on Sept. 1, but Gannaway said the future remains uncertain, which points to a need for the restored funding.
Welsch said uncertainty also points to a need for added flexibility in the county’s budget proposal.
“We have a lot of agencies that request appropriations,” she said, noting Legal Assistance of Olmsted County has requested approximately $50,000 in extra funding to deal with increased eviction concerns and the local University of Minnesota Extension office is looking for funds to hire a master gardener.
Welsch said the amount of funding received by the history center has been a topic of discussion for years as budgets are developed.
“Outside of the library, which we are mandated to do an appropriation for, the History Center receives the highest appropriation and always has,” she said, adding that the county’s commitment is among the highest when compared to other counties’ support for similar operations.
The commissioners will set a 2022 property tax levy cap Tuesday, which will dictate how much the county can collect in property taxes and how much it has to help other organizations.
Commissioner Ken Brown, who sits on the history center board as a county representative, said the final outcome for history center appropriations is uncertain based on discussions with his fellow commissioners.
“I support the same allocation, but I’m not really sure where the board is at,” he said.
Commissioner Mark Thein, who sat on the history board for two years before Brown, said the proposed cut shouldn’t be a surprise.
“When I served on the board, I made it clear to them that these were conversations we are having, and they should expect things are not going to continue at the same level forever,” he said.
Gannaway said such conversations were not considered formal notice, but Welsch said she believes the message was also sent through proper channels. Both cited a desire to improve communication in the future.
Thein said the commissioners will likely have a difficult decision to make moving forward.
“I appreciate the history center and am a big fan of the history center, but we have limited funds and unlimited requests,” he said.
HOOTENANNY FUNDRAISER SATURDAY
The History Center of Olmsted County will hold its Hootenanny at the History Center from 2 to 7 p.m. Saturday on the grounds at 1195 West Circle Drive SW.
The bluegrass and country music lineup features Root River Jam, Luke Hendrikson and the Crop Circles and Becky Schlegel.
Tickets are $20, with a link to purchase on line at www.olmstedhistory.com/events.