Old Salem charts new course

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — In 2006, Old Salem Museums & Gardens was operating with a $1.5 million deficit on an annual budget of over $6 million, and had accumulated $5 million in debt.

This year, after cutting roughly $1 million in costs, including roughly 30 full-time staff, Old Salem expects to break even on its budget, and it has retired 75 percent of its debt and expects to have paid it off by February 2015.

The organization also has a new president and CEO, has embarked on a new strategic plan she helped develop as board chair, and is planning a $15 million campaign to support the plan and build its endowment.

“The future is a vibrant, engaging museum experience for young and old,” says Ragan Folan, who on Feb. 1 became Old Salem’s president and CEO, succeeding Lee French, who left after five-and-a-half years to pursue other professional opportunities and address family and personal goals.

Folan, who has served as an independent consultant to IBM Lotus Software for 15 years after working for the company for 11 years in sales and management positions, joined the Old Salem board in 2005 and served as its chair from May 2010 until taking the top executive job.

Founded in 1951 and operating with an annual budget of $4.7 million and a staff of 100 people working full-time and roughly 125 working part-time, Old Salem encompasses a 90-acre campus that is home to the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts and the historic town of Salem.

Old Salem, which also operates six retail and food outlets, attracts 80,000 paying visitors a year.

A recent study by the Schools of Business at Wake Forest University found the museums and gardens attracts a total to 150,000 to 200,000 visitors a year, many of whom “treat Old Salem like a public park or public space,” Folan says.

The strategic plan, which was developed by a task force she chaired with the help of Atlanta consulting firm The Coyne Partnership, calls for improving the visitor experience so visitors will want to return, she says.

The plan says Old Salem should “enhance and improve the visitor experience,” Folan says.

Traditionally, she says, staff and volunteers in costume who greeted visitors to Old Salem focused on Moravian history, letting visitors know about individuals who lived or worked in a particular building, what they did, and what their life was like.

Under the new approach, she says, greeters will play the roles of people who actually lived in Old Salem, talking about their lives in the context of American history from 1766 to 1866.

To help tell its story, Folan says, Old Salem also will make more creative use of technology, such as holograms and, for children, “touch screens.
The idea, she says, is to “make these people from years ago come alive.”

Folan says Old Salem has begun the quiet phase of a campaign to raise funds for capital improvements and to build the organization’s endowment, which now $37 million.

According to the online calendar at The Winston-Salem Foundation for local capital campaigns, the public phase of the campaign is scheduled to begin in April 2013.

Old Salem also plans to raise its visibility through special events and improved retail offerings and food services, Folan says.

Last July 4, for example, Old Salem served as the Western North Carolina site for a naturalization ceremony held by U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services for roughly 100 new citizens, an event that attracted hundreds of visitors.

In 1783, in fact, Old Salem was site of the first Independence Day celebration in the U.S., Folan says.

Old Salem needs to “transform some of our retail to meet the broader spectrum of needs and desires, enhance our food service offerings, and build better infrastructure from a technology perspective so we could have wireless hotspots” where visitors could use laptop computers and mobile devices, Folan says.

The goal, she says, is for visitors to leave “with a feeling for how their life experience today is relevant or could be explained or understood better by knowing the stories of those who lived in the historic town of Salem from 1766 to 1866.”

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