Consultant’s report predicted wildly inflated attendance at Old State House
March 1, 2007
By DIANE WEAVER DUNNE, Hartford Business Journal Writer
When Connecticut Historical Society officials announced last week that the Old State House was in financial trouble, their predicament could be traced back to a 2003 economic feasibility report prepared by Massachusetts-based ConsultEcon.
With a new $3.7 million history and education center planned at the historic building, ConsultEcon projected first year attendance figures to be 63,000. So far, only 13,000 people have visited exhibit since mid-September.
That lack of attendance, and faltering support elsewhere, was fatal to the historical society's plans for the landmark.
Robert Brais, vice president of ConsultEcon, explained that the estimate of the attendance potential for a visitor attraction was based on several factors, including site characteristics, the availability of residents and tourists, and its programs, operations, and marketing.
"You have to have all of these things in place," he said, in order for an attraction to realize its attendance potential. "It takes a couple of years for a new establishment to really establish itself and to understand what its actual operations will be. Five months is not a sufficient sample."
This wasn't the first time CHS had to readjust Old State House attendance figures. An earlier report maintained that 350,000 visited the Old State House each year. Officials later discovered that those figures, reflecting attendance prior to 2002, were "incredibly inflated." It represented the number of passersby's - people who walked and drove past the Old State House --not the number of people who actually went in to the building.
"We were able to whittle it down to a more accurate 35,000," said Kevin Hughes, chief financial officer of CHS. The organization had counted on attendance calculations to project future Old State House revenues generated from admission fees.
"With a nonprofit, it doesn't take long for something to unravel," Hughes said, adding that utility costs skyrocketed 120 percent this past year, another expense not anticipated.
"Until we saw the impact of our new experiences, we weren't able to predict gloom and doom," he said.
Not everything has been bad news. CHS reduced the annual operating budget of the Old State House from $500,000 to $100,000. It overhauled the landmark building's visitor experience with the installation of the new history exhibit and created a new education center, and significantly increased rentals.
Despite those efforts, it still falls short of the $600,000 needed each year to maintain and manage the former state capitol, said Kate Steinway, recently appointed executive director of CHS and the Old State House.
Steinway said that CHS agreed to manage the Old State House in 2003, but understood that ongoing state funding would be part of the deal.
She recently warned state lawmakers that unless the state comes to the rescue, visitors won't be able walk the halls of the 211-year-old Federal-style building where the Amistad slave ship trial began, where presidents from Andrew Jackson to George H.W. Bush have visited and where U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd announced last month he was seeking the Democratic nomination for president.
"We looked at the budget. To continue to operate the Old State House, it would be a financial drain and would potentially bring down the Connecticut Historical Society," said James C. Williams, chairman of the historical society's board of directors.
In fact, CHS is now experiencing its own deficit due to an expensive heating and ventilation upgrade to its Elizabeth Street museum, where the historical society operates its own museum, library and educational center.
Historical society officials last week appealed to state lawmakers, urging them to transfer ownership of the Old State House from the city of Hartford to the state of Connecticut. They also want the Office of Legislative Management, which runs the current state Capitol and Legislative Office Building complex, to take over operations such as security and building maintenance, of the Old State House.
"The fact of the matter is, we can't do it anymore," Steinway, said "We can't support it on our own anymore."
State Aid Necessary
The Hartford City Council would have to sign off on any transfer of ownership. But Matt Hennessy, chief of staff for Mayor Eddie Perez, said it makes sense that the General Assembly play a greater role.
Over the past decade, the city has had to reduce its annual stipend of $150,000 to $50,000 for the Old State House because of cuts in federal grants.
"It's a state asset. The city owns it, the city has been a financial supporter of it for a long time, but at the end of the day, this is something the state has got to decide is worth preserving," Hennessy said. "This is really a state asset. A state treasure."
Rep. Denise Merrill, co-chairwoman of the legislature's budget-writing committee, said she wants to find a way to keep the building open to the public.
"They're raising the red flags. I feel strongly that we can't let it close. I just think that would be an embarrassment to the state," said Merrill, D-Mansfield. "I just don't think we should be the generation that lets it close."
The Old State House and its land have been part of key moments in Connecticut and American history. Connecticut is known as the Constitution State because the original meeting house on the Old State House grounds is where the first written constitution, the Fundamental Orders guaranteeing the right to representative government, was written in 1639.
The Old State House originally operated as one of the two Connecticut state Capitols. The other was in New Haven.
The old Senate chamber still appears as it did in about 1820. George Washington's portrait by Gilbert Stuart, painted especially for that room in 1801, hangs on the wall. There, students are taught about the three branches of government and how the legislature operates.
Across the hall is the former Hartford Council chambers, which appears as it did in about 1890.
The building has had its troubles over the years. In 1915, the Old State House was abandoned. In 1921, a group of citizens raised money to protect the building. By the 1970s, there was talk of tearing it down for a parking garage.
In 2003, then-Gov. John G. Rowland asked the historical society to take over the operations and expand school programming, create a new exhibition program, develop a self-guided audio tour, open a store and streamline the operating budget. The state provided $2.9 million for the improvements.
Last year's state budget included a $200,000 stipend from the state, but the money is not part of the second year of Gov. M. Jodi Rell's spending proposal.
Steinway said the society has increased admissions and made all the improvements, including raising $1.3 million toward the $3.7 million renovation, which boasts an underground, interactive exhibition hall. It also has begun renting space in the building for weddings, corporate meetings and political events to generate income.
Still, it's become difficult to raise money for both nonprofit entities, said Marion Leonard, director of internal affairs for the Old State House and historical society. Donors want to give to one or the other or divide their contributions between the two. In the end, the society was losing money.
"Our fundraising abilities have been hampered," she said.
Historical society officials said they've warned public officials about the impending fiscal crunch and fear the sight of plywood covering the Old State House's windows.
"If this place were not here and it was another high-rise or if it was boarded up and became another abandoned building, it's a scar for everyone," Steinway said.
An Associated Press report was included in this story.