Pitkin County ready to help struggling historical society
The struggling Aspen Historical Society has found its knight in shining armor.The Pitkin County commissioners agreed informally yesterday to provide the historical society with $200,000 to help cover costs of general operations and an election next year. If the county hadn’t ponied up, the historical society would likely have been forced to cease operations altogether. Based in the Wheeler-Stallard House in Aspen’s West End, the historical society manages sites around the upper valley, including the ghost towns of Independence and Ashcroft, the old lift at the bottom of Lift 1A on Aspen Mountain and the Holden-Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum.The Aspen Historical Society has been in financial straits for several years, following the failed tenures of two executive directors. Since hiring longtime local Georgia Hanson as executive director three years ago, the historical society has reconstituted its board of directors and aggressively pursued a grassroots strategy of increasing local membership.But residual bad will from the financial mismanagement of past directors and a failed name change to HeritageAspen has been too great to overcome, forcing Hanson to cut programs and staff. There will be no lecture series this winter, for instance, because there simply hasn’t been the staff or money to line it up, Hanson told the commissioners. The historical society still must raise another $76,000 to be fully funded for the next year, but Hanson is confident she and the historical society board can find the money.”This money lifts a black cloud,” Hanson said. “Assuming this provides the momentum to find other funding, we’re a go.”Other possible funding sources include the city of Aspen, which has shown reluctance in the past to help struggling nonprofits, the town of Snowmass Village, and the Aspen Skiing Co. and its supporters.While the final details of the arrangement have yet to be worked out, it appears four county commissioners are willing to back the historical society when a formal vote is taken later this month.The commissioners disagreed at yesterday’s work session on a number of issues, the biggest of which was whether the money should be given in the form of a loan or a grant. The county has the extra money due to a number of circumstances this year, including lower-than-expected labor costs and higher-than-expected sales tax revenues.Commissioners Dorothea Farris and Shellie Roy wanted to grant the money outright, while Patti Clapper and Mick Ireland favored a combination of grants and loans.”Isn’t it appropriate that if the tax measure passes, the historical society pays the [county] general fund back?” Ireland asked.Ireland and Clapper both thought a loan/grant package would make it easier on Hanson and the historical society board to ask private citizens for financial support.But Hanson said she wasn’t sure how the historical society would be able to pay a loan back, given the current state of its finances. Already, the organization is in the process of paying back an endowment set up by the estate of Ruth Whyte to pay for the museum at the Wheeler-Stallard House. That money was spent on general operations by a previous executive director, in defiance of the wishes of the benefactress.Farris said the county should grant the money because of the special function the historical society serves.”One of Aspen’s strengths is it is a town. And one of the reasons we are what we are is our history,” she said. Clapper to a large extent agreed, noting that the historical society provides unique services, including the archiving of newspapers, memorabilia, photographs and other items of historical import. “In many ways the historical society is different than other nonprofits,” she said. Clapper nevertheless thought a loan-grant package would look less like a bailout, which in turn could be important when voters are asked to raise their property taxes to support the historical society.Like Farris, Roy favored granting the money. Roy, who sits on the historical society board, said the $276,000 budget has been pared down as far as possible.”This organization does not need to be straightened out – we’ve spent a lot of time working on the bottom line,” she said. “The only thing that can solve these problems is a new model.”Commissioner Jack Hatfield is the only commissioner to come out against giving the money, regardless of whether it’s in the form of a loan or grant. Hatfield did say he would have gotten behind a smaller amount, in the range of $100,000 to $150,000.”On a personal level, I support the historical society – I want it to be successful,” he said. “But when I put on my commissioner’s hat, I struggle with our fiduciary responsibility.”Hatfield also worried that a grant would be taken as a signal by other struggling nonprofits that the county would bail them out.Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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