03/24/13 — Aycock Birthplace slated for shutdown

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Aycock Birthplace slated for shutdown

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 24, 2013 1:50 AM

State officials say the proposed closure of the Charles B. Aycock Birthplace in Fremont is unfortunate but necessary given the budget demands in Gov. Pat McCrory's $20.6 billion state spending plan. However, said Keith Hardison, director of the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties in the Department of Cultural Resources, the goal would be to place the birthplace in a "dormant status," rather than shuttering it completely.

The Aycock Birthplace, which is one of 24 state historic sites and properties, has been operated since 1959. It is the birthplace of North Carolina's 50th governor, Charles B. Aycock, who, known as the "Education Governor," served from 1901 to 1905. Aycock, who was born in 1859, also practiced law in Goldsboro.

The site, which is two miles south of Fremont, features a mid-19th century farmstead with a house, kitchen and outbuildings, including a corn barn and stables, as well as the Oak Plains School, an 1893 one-room schoolhouse. In addition, the site also has a visitor center with exhibits on the governor and his early 20th century education reforms, as well as sheep, poultry, field crops and a three-season kitchen garden.

"All our historic sites are important," Hardison said. "We have 24 in our system, running from Asheville to Wilmington and many points in between, and each has been determined by the N.C. Historical Commission to be of statewide historical significance."

Unfortunately, Hardison continued, that significance has not translated into a high number of visitors at the Aycock Birthplace.

Typically, he said, the site ranges from between 9,000 and 12,000 visitors each fiscal year. In 2010-11, it had 11,275; and in 2011-12, it had 11,576 -- putting it in the bottom two or three sites in the state in terms of visitation. So far this year, it has seen about 5,000 visitors -- slightly below last year's pace.

"It's always been a struggle to get a large number of visitors to that site," Hardison said. "Location is a part of that. Subject matter is a part of it."

Marketing a governor who served at the turn of the century and who was not a well-known, national figure, he explained, is inherently difficult.

"Battlefields are more exciting than people. There's not quite the pizzazz for people to come and see it," he said. "We've tried a number of different programs at Aycock, some of which have been more successful than others, but none that have drawn the consistent crowds we need."

And so, Hardison explained, when the order came down to make cuts, they were forced to look at the state's lowest performing sites, which also include Polk Memorial, Vance Birthplace, House in the Horseshoe and the Museum of History's Old Fort/Mountain Gateway site -- a total of 12 positions and $498,712.

"Our agency has experienced a 25 percent cut in our funding. We are literally down to barely scraping by, and with these added cuts and the current economic slump, and the fact that 86 percent of the budget is personnel, leaving 14 percent for supplies and other operations, it's a bare bones situation," he said. "Unfortunately, there's just nowhere else we can cut other than our sites, so the primary focus we looked at was the number of people who visit the sites and the cost per visitor."

The Aycock Birthplace has an annual budget of approximately $205,000, and employs three full-time workers, a few temporary workers and has several volunteers who provide assistance from time to time.

The goal, he explained, though, is not to close any of the sites entirely, but rather to keep an employee at each one for security and to help maintain and preserve the facilities and their artifacts, but not to have them open to the public on a regular basis. The sites could be opened for special events.

"The ultimate goal is when the economy and the budget improve, to return it to operation," Hardison said. "This is an unfortunate necessity, but our feeling is that it is a temporary situation."

For Betsy Roseman, director of Wayne County Travel and Tourism, the news of the potential closure came as a bit of a shock, especially with a year-long effort to celebrate the Oak Plains School's 120th anniversary scheduled to begin this fall.

However, she said, while it is an important piece of Wayne County's history and culture, its closure is not likely to be deeply felt by the local economy.

"It's definitely a drawing card and makes us unique. Not every county has a governor's birthplace," she said. "But it is a lot of day trips -- a tremendous amount of school children tours because it is part of the fourth- and eighth-grade curriculums, people in town for multi-day trips going out there, people stopping off of 795.

"It's very valuable to our county and we do market the attraction, but although it's a valuable resource, I don't think it'll have a great impact on our hotels and businesses."