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Serenity Now

by Jeff Sykes

New leadership and stability plan move Civil Rights Museum forward

jeff@yesweekly.com| @jeffreysykes

Remember when the City of Greensboro seemed to be locked into an endless volley with the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, with letters and emails and non-descript answers to same flying back and forth down the narrow side street of February One Place? Or how about the time the city was looking for answers as to how its initial loan of $750,000 was used, and the city manager asked for clarity on the ICRCM’s complex web of corporate entities that had been set up in order to take advantage of state and federal tax credits, only to have the chair of the museum board refer him to the federal tax code?

That was a good one.

But those days are long gone thanks to new leadership in place at the museum. Even during those dark days earlier this spring when the museum was on the front pages of all the newspapers for all the wrong reasons, everyone agreed the facility, which commemorates the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter sit-ins in 1960 that helped launch the Civil Rights Movement, could be a cultural gem for Greensboro, and the state of North Carolina.

The city had approved this past fall a $1.5 million loan to prop-up the museum as it struggled to meet critical financial obligations. But then in February, punctilious City Councilman Tony Wilkins asked to see a copy of the loan agreement, only to discover that half the money had been loaned out without a contract having been signed.

That’s what set off the chain of events that led to the city attorney being fired, a public outcry over financial oversight and basic accounting methods, and the two sides adopting combative stances as the furor raged.

In a stroke of genius, the museum’s board erased all that negativity when they hired new Executive Director Lacy Ward, a soft-spoken but firm man whose confidence and directness command respect.

Such was evidenced by Ward’s recent appearance at the Oct. 7 meeting of the city council. Not one negative word was said in his direction. City Manager Jim Westmoreland introduced Ward, more so for the viewing audience than for council. Ward has been a fixture on the downtown scene since he was hired in April, by attending meetings and events or seen strolling down Elm Street to a local restaurant or shop. The museum has hosted several significant events, including an ACLU press conference shortly after Ward was hired and more recently Mayor Nancy Vaughan’s Poverty Summit.

“We have turned the corner,” Westmoreland said by way of introduction. “The best days of the museum are ahead of us. The museum is going to be the outstanding cultural asset for this community that we know it can be.”

Ward was there to give the council an update on the ICRCM’s financial stability plan. The museum expanded its governing board from 15 to 25 members, Ward said.

“We realized there were talents and abilities necessary to good governance of the organization that weren’t quite sitting at our board table,” he said. “I think that this is the team that will allow us to move forward in addressing a sustainability plan.”

One of the biggest concerns in the early spring was whether the museum could keep making payments on a loan taken from Carolina Bank in order to meet its obligation to pay back tax credits used to finance construction of the museum, which opened in 2010. City Attorney Tom Carruthers reported to council in April that the loan balance to Carolina Bank stood at $883,000.

In his update to council, Ward noted that the balance was down by $100,000, now standing at $782,000. Another payment of $200,000 is due on that loan in December.

One-third of the city’s total loan commitment, $500,000, has been applied to, or held in reserve for, payments related to the New Market Tax Credit program, one of the complex financial devices used to finance the museum construction.

“It’s one of those pegs that if it comes out the whole contraption falls apart,” Ward said.

The city’s support has given the museum breathing room to plan and execute short-term financial goals. In addition to improved revenue at the museum, which has earned $399,000 in 2014, the ICRCM has exceeded two of its three financial development initiatives this year.

At the gate, the museum has earned $283,000 in admission, $93,000 at the gift shop and some $22,000 in rent. Three development initiatives had a goal of $218,000 for 2014, but have realized revenue of more than $276,000. Grants totaling $160,000, and a gala event earning $89,000, exceeded the organization’s goals. Only the charity golf tournament fell short of its $30,000 goal, earning instead $27,217.

“What comes in as retail will never be enough to fully operate the museum, but it is our hope to get it somewhere above one-third of our costs, or maybe even as much as half,” Ward said.

In a follow up interview this past week, Ward said that the board expansion was the major first step in stabilizing the museum.

“It gave us a more democratic board and a more representative board,” Ward said. “It allowed us to touch parts of the community that we hadn’t prior.”

The existing board unanimously favored the expansion, he said, which sought to increase representation from corporate, philanthropic, academic and government sectors. The goal was to help the museum function by developing strong partnerships with organizations that have influence on the arts and humanities. A big change took place when the board began to focus on organizational attributes “” what corporations would be represented on the board “” and less on personalities. Once the museum board decided which organizations might best help them move forward, they asked if the group had team members that might want to help form partnerships.

Since then, the organization has focused on three operational priorities: governance, management and structure. Once the new board was in place, Ward looked at management of operations, development, and financial reporting in order to make changes.

One operational change was to move the focus away from curatorial functions in order to focus on visitor engagement and programming, and looking for ways to build relationships with the educational community and other non-profits.

One simple structural change was to learn how to discuss the museum’s budget in separate terms when referring to operations versus the tax credit financing that helped build the museum. Ward said he immediately began to separate the operational budget so that the public could have a better understanding of how the everyday money was being handled at the museum. Because of the number of legal entities set up to be able to take advantage of federal, state and New Market tax credits, confusion reigned when discussing the overall financial situation.

“It made for a very complicated organization, which was hard for the community to have an understanding of the operational costs of the museum,” Ward said. “What the public needed to see was the museum operating budget as pure as possible.”

In his comments before city council, Ward thanked the city for its financial commitment to the museum.

“I appreciate that you all were there at a critical time in the museum’s history,” he said.

A cascade of praise came back Mr. Ward’s way, from Mayor Nancy Vaughan, and most council members. Councilman Zack Matheny summed it up best, observing that he had a reputation for not saying anything positive about the museum in the past. Matheny said Ward was bringing much needed leadership, not only to the museum, but the city as a whole.

“I am thoroughly impressed and very glad that the museum is in more than exceptional hands,” Matheny said. !

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