04/28/13 — Officials: Aycock future in hands of legislature

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Officials: Aycock future in hands of legislature

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 28, 2013 1:50 AM

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Department of Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz, center, answer questions during a town hall meeting at the historic Gov. Charles B. Aycock Birthplace. The site is scheduled to be closed as part of budget cuts made by Gov. Pat McCrory.

FREMONT -- The irony of Thursday's meeting to discuss the potential darkening of the Charles B. Aycock Birthplace while hundreds of school children ran around the grounds, exploring the historic site's 19th century history wasn't lost on the dozens of people attending a town hall style meeting with Secretary of Cultural Resources Susan Kluttz.

During their comments and questions, many highlighted the importance of the site in terms, not only of tourism and economic development, but even more in terms of education, noting the classes outside learning what life was like more than 100 years ago.

"This site is important not only to economic development, but also to the education process," said county Commissioner Ray Mayo, whose District 1 includes the birthplace. "You can read about it in a book, you can have a teacher tell you about it, but when you go and experience it hands-on, it really drives it home."

However, state officials said that while they agree about the importance of the site, their hands are tied by the Gov. Pat McCrory's budget proposal.

Kevin Cherry, deputy secretary of Cultural Resources, explained that since 2008, the department has had its funding cut by 25 percent and has reduced its staff by 20 percent. Now, he said, with the governor coming back looking for more, they're out of places to trim.

"We've done as much as we can since 2008 with the cuts to not have a direct impact on the public. We can squeeze a penny and we're very proud of that," he said. "But one more cut, even a little one, means we have to stop doing something, even if just for a little while."

But, he said, if there is a silver lining, that is it -- that this closure is expected to be temporary. In fact, he explained, the site will not technically be shut down. It will be closed to the public, but will have one staff member on site to keep it operational -- currently there are three -- and will be re-opened for special events such as the current Farm Heritage Days going on this week and the Christmas programs.

"This proposal in the governor's budget is temporary until we have the funds to open this back up to the public," Ms. Kluttz said. "This site is not being closed permanently.

"We are very optimistic that this is going to be the worse and that things are going to get better. We do forward to, in the future, as soon as possible, this site being reopened."

It is, she acknowledged, not an ideal situation, but is the best they can do under the circumstances. Director of State Historic Sites Kevin Hardison explained that when the call came down to make cuts he only was able to scrape together $100,000 before it started affecting jobs and places.

In addition to the Aycock Birthplace, three more sites -- the birthplace of President James K. Polk, the birthplace of Gov. Zebulon Vance and the House in the Horseshoe -- are slated for dormancy and a fourth, the Mountain Gateway Museum, could be closed.

All total, the moves are expected to save nearly $500,000, with approximately $96,000 of that coming out the Aycock Birthplace's estimated $150,000 budget.

And it's not just state historic sites, Cherry noted. Also seeing cuts are the state Arts Council, the state's libraries, the N.C. Symphony, the N.C. Museum of Art and others.

"Everybody has to sacrifice," he said. "When you're given a number to meet and there's nowhere left to cut, all decisions are hard."

But, Ms. Kluttz reminded the crowd, "This isn't done until the final budget passes out of the General Assembly."

So, said former Cultural Resources secretary Betty Ray McCain, now it's up to those who care about the Aycock Birthplace to put pressure on their legislators.

"I think every one of us needs to go to our legislator and tell them we do not want this to happen," she said. "It is time to whine."

Wayne Aycock, county commissioner at-large, echoed that sentiment.

"This place is dear to me," he said. "The ball's in our court now. We've got representatives. They will listen."

At some point, though, Cherry noted, there will have to be a change in how state cultural sites are funded, and he said that is something they are working on.

"We can't continue to rely so much on state appropriations," he said.

The goal, he explained, is to use the time while the sites are darkened to explore ways to increase private donations, increase cooperation with local governments and develop enhanced programs that can be offered for a small fee.

"It's the three-legged stool approach -- public funds, fundraising and receipts," he said.

After the meeting, Fremont Mayor Darron Flowers said he was encouraged by what he heard, but still concerned about the site's future.

"When you go into dormancy, the next step, if it's tight, is to close it," he said. "We are always encouraged when we have the opportunity to express to leaders in Raleigh the value of this program, and we hope they can find this small sum of money to keep it open.

"When you're talking about the state budget in the billions, what is $96,000 when you talk about the value to the children?"