Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg $300 mil­lion in debt, lays off work­ers.

Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg will lay off 71 work­ers


RICH­MOND, VA. | Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg will out­source many of its com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions and lay off work­ers in re­sponse to de­clin­ing at­ten­dance and long-run­ning fi­nan­cial chal­lenges, the liv­ing his­tory mu­seum’s top of­fi­cial an­nounced Thurs­day.

The foun­da­tion that op­er­ates the eastern Vir­ginia at­trac­tion is in fi­nal ne­go­ti­a­tions with four com­pa­nies that will man­age its golf op­er­a­tions, re­tail stores, much of its main­te­nance and fa­cil­i­ties op­er­a­tions and its com­mer­cial real es­tate, Pres­i­dent and CEO Mitchell Reiss said.

“For a va­ri­ety of rea­sons — busi­ness de­ci­sions made in years past, less Amer­i­can his­tory be­ing taught in schools, chang­ing times and tastes that cause us to at­tract half the vis­i­tors we did 30 years ago — the Foun­da­tion loses sig­nif­i­cant amounts of money ev­ery year,” he wrote in a let­ter shared pub­licly.

The foun­da­tion’s op­er­at­ing losses last year to­taled $54 mil­lion, or $148,000 per day. It also bor­rowed heav­ily to im­prove its hos­pi­tal­ity fa­cil­i­ties and vis­i­tors cen­ter and ended 2016 with more than $300 mil­lion in debt, Mr. Reiss said.

Com­bined, those fac­tors put pres­sure on the foun­da­tion’s en­dow­ment, with with­drawals reach­ing as high as 12 per­cent per year. At that rate, the ap­prox­i­mately $684 mil­lion en­dow­ment could be ex­hausted in just eight years or per­haps sooner.

Mr. Reiss said in an in­ter­view that the foun­da­tion’s fi­nan­cial straits meant its mis­sion of his­toric preser­va­tion “was at risk, quite frankly.”

Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg is the world’s largest liv­ing his­tory mu­seum, with cos­tumed in­ter­preters who re-en­act 18th cen­tury life amid more than 600 re­stored or re­con­structed orig­i­nal build­ings.

The city south­east of Rich­mond served as Vir­ginia’s cap­i­tal from 1699, when nearby Jamestown burned to the ground, un­til 1780. It fell into dis­re­pair but was re­vived in the 1920s in a restora­tion project fi­nanced by John D. Rock­e­feller Jr.

Mr. Reiss said 71 jobs from de­part­ments across the foun­da­tion will be elim­i­nated by year’s end, and an­other 262 em­ploy­ees may choose to work for the con­tract com­pa­nies, which agreed to hire and re­tain el­i­gi­ble em­ploy­ees for at least the next year. Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg will have just un­der 2,100 em­ploy­ees when the process is fin­ished, he said.

None of the cos­tumed in­ter­preters will be af­fected, he said.

“If there was any other way to save the Foun­da­tion, I would ea­gerly have taken it,” Mr. Reiss wrote in his let­ter. “But there isn’t.”

In ad­di­tion to tak­ing steps to “right the fi­nan­cial ship,” the foun­da­tion has been work­ing to cre­ate a more im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence, hop­ing to re­verse the decades-long de­cline in vis­i­tors, which peaked at 1.3 mil­lion in 1976, Mr. Reiss said. It has added a colo­nial shoot­ing range and a kids’ ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dig, and a hatchet-throw­ing site is open­ing this sum­mer, he said.

The foun­da­tion also in­vested in ren­o­vat­ing the ho­tels and golf cour­ses owned by its for-profit side, which has never been prof­itable, he said.

“We want to be a world class des­ti­na­tion,” Mr. Reiss said.


Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg an­nounced Thurs­day it will out­source many of its op­er­a­tions in a re­struc­tur­ing that in­cludes lay­offs.

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