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Colonial Williamsburg renews experiences, hoping to bring back crowds

WILLIAMSBURG, Va.-- Characters from the 18th century come to life against the backdrop of Colonial Williamsburg, a living museum that transports visitors from around the world on a journey through the ages – but it’s future is in question.

Willie Parker spent more than three decades in Colonial Williamsburg, as a historical interpreter and master printer. He helped tell the story of the founding of this country, to dignitaries, celebrities and history buffs -- who in years past, flocked to the renowned historic area by the millions.

Parker said Colonial Williamsburg serves an important purpose, education.

It was created and funded by the Rockefeller and Goodwin families in 1920s, and once employed 8,000 local workers who pumped half a billion dollars into Williamsburg’s economy each year.

“The foundation was a very important part of the community of Williamsburg and surrounding areas,” he said. “A lot of people in the area worked for the foundation. So it was a livelihood for many.”

President and CEO Mitchell Reiss say the foundation`s future is now on the shaky financial ground and faces $300 million dollars of debt.

The concern has a lot to do with visitors not showing up the way they previously did.

The crowds have begun to thin over the years.

“People are taking fewer vacations, there`s less American history being taught in schools, less money for field trips and visitation had been declining for quite some time,” says Reiss.

Reiss says there were also business decisions made in the past that did not work out as expected, and that years of huge financial losses forced the organization to rely heavily on its endowment. He warned if that continued, the foundation would go out of business, in just a few years.

Last year the foundation lost $54 million, that`s $148,000 in losses every day – a figure that he said is unacceptable, and something they can`t sustain. Which led leaders to make the tough choice of outsourcing operations, including the golf course -- a plan that also includes laying off 71 workers.

“It was absolutely necessary to save the foundation,” Reiss said.

Former employee Linda Howard said she`s worried about the people who are being laid off and the other 262 workers who will transfer to - at least for one year - the companies taking over retail, facilities and maintenance operations.

“Praying for the people that`s caught up in it, praying for the people that`s trying to figure out, praying for the people that`s made the mess, just hoping god will hear us and get us to the place we need to be,” Howard said.

Reiss said the way to get to that place is by focusing on the core educational mission.

“Which is the historic area, teacher and student education --the museums, that`s what the endowment is for,” Reiss said.

Vice President of Education and Research Ted Maris-Wolf envisions creating more engaging and hands on opportunities like these for kids.

“We have a kid’s archaeology dig site,” Maris-Wolf said. “It`s a real dig site. Kids
can jump in, they can scratch the soil and they`re finding articles…”

It’s a renewed focus that Parker hopes will help the bottom line.

“Things change and because of all of the other attractions here a lot of people will opt to go to Busch Gardens or maybe water country rather than come to Colonial Williamsburg,” Parker said. “It`s kind of hard to compete…especially with the young children.”

Leaders plan to get back to basics and renew the vision the founders had in mind, so history can continue to be told and the future can continue to learn from the past.

“When you know from whence you come, you can appreciate where you are. It`s important that they survive...and I’m sure that they will,” Parker said.