News: CJ Exclusives

Greensboro Civil Rights Museum still struggling financially

Museum celebrating end of segregation still a drain on local coffers with few ideas in place to make it solvent

The International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro has struggled financially and required help from local taxpayers. (Photo courtesy of International Civil Rights Center & Museum)
The International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro has struggled financially and required help from local taxpayers. (Photo courtesy of International Civil Rights Center & Museum)

Another Feb.1 has come and gone for Greensboro’s International Civil Rights Center and Museum. One can’t help but wonder how many more years will pass before that historic date carries true significance.

Despite the museum’s financial troubles, officials are optimistic.

“We are a civil rights museum today. We hope to be one 20 years from now, 50 years from now. That’s what we’re focused on,” said John Swaine, the museum’s chief financial officer, during an August meeting with the City Council.

Some council members, however, expressed skepticism — to say the least.

“The museum as a business has no chance of making it,” said council member Mike Barber.

For those unfamiliar, Feb. 1, 1960 is the day four North Carolina A&T State University students — Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeill, Ezell Blair, and David Richmond — took seats at the segregated downtown Woolworth’s lunch counter, launching the “sit-in” movement that would add another spark to the civil rights movement sweeping through the South.

The 50th anniversary of that historic event was celebrated with the grand opening of the civil rights museum. Elm Street — Greensboro’s main downtown corridor — was closed. Ceremonies were broadcast live on local television stations and a special guest was in attendance — civil rights icon the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

But since the grand opening, it’s been a struggle of a different sort for the museum. While attendance increased from 60,000 in 2015 to 71,000 in 2016, the numbers are below expectations. In an effort to put a good face on attendance numbers, museum officials were touting the busloads of children visiting on school field trips.

Moreover, the nonprofit that operates the museum — Sit-In Movement, Inc. —had to get a loan from the city to keep its doors open. Even with the public help, the museum’s financial future is uncertain.

In 2013 the City Council approved to a $1.5 million forgivable loan to Sit-In Movement Inc. As part of the agreement, the city would match every dollar the museum raised through “fundraising,” which is defined as “activities that directly raise money for the museum,” not including admission fees.

Last August, museum officials came before the City Council asking for an extension on the loan until February 2018. At times discussion and debate grew tense before the council passed the extension by a narrow 5-4 vote.

A recent telethon hosted by local television station WFMY brought in $21,000, but — as the museum noted in a press release — “for each $1 donated, the impact to the museum is $2 because the City of Greensboro will match the funds donated, as part of our loan setoff. So the real beneficial impact to the museum for that day is $42,600.”

The urgency of the museum’s financial situation was compounded by its participation in the federal New Markets Tax Credit program, which provides tax credits to entities rehabilitating inner-city areas. The catch — the entity must remain open for seven years, or else the federal government reclaims the tax credits.

Given the museum’s financial situation, making it to that seven-year finish line was in question.

But now that the museum has reached that deadline, it can focus on raising enough money to satisfy its obligation to the city and increasing attendance.

As a condition of the forgivable loan, the museum installed two city representatives on its board of directors — Mayor Nancy Vaughan and City Manager Jim Westmoreland.

In an interview with Carolina Journal, Westmoreland confirmed local media reports that the museum had whittled the amount of the loan down to $370,000.

“We’ve been able to effectively verify that they’ve been given credit for everything but about $370,000,” Westmoreland said. “I’m generally optimistic that the museum will be able to to continue to fundraise, and that they should have sufficient time to whittle this down. But we will see.”

Should the museum not meet its deadline, according to the agreement, it will be responsible for paying back the entire $1.5 million loan.

When asked about that possibility, Westmoreland more or less replied that was a bridge to cross when the city — and its taxpaying citizens — got to it.

“Hopefully when the time comes, we know that either they’ve accomplished the goal or have some focus on what’s outstanding,” he said.

Westmoreland nonetheless added that he’s “more optimistic about the long-term success of the museum than I have been in the past.”

As a condition of the loan, the museum was required to submit a long-term sustainability plan.

Ideas for increasing attendance — and revenue — are wide and varied. One example is the museum’s request that Congress authorize the minting of a coin honoring the Greensboro Four. According to the plan, then Sen. Kay Hagan filed legislation to begin the process, but efforts stalled, and Hagan was voted out of office in 2014.

Another idea was to establish a “Center for the Study of Racism and Contemporary Civil Rights Issues,” which in theory will “examine the exportation of North American ideas regarding race and its pernicious impact on human societies.”

But the museum appears to be well aware the exhibit expansion is the true key to long-term sustainability. Indeed, the museum has a new exhibit on the Tuskeegee Airmen that runs through March 15.

Swaine told radio station WFDD that a $50,000 grant from the National Park Service would go toward a new exhibition on the 14th Amendment.

The museum is also looking to leverage its relationship with Jackson, a 1964 A&T graduate.

The strategic plan identifies a new gallery installation titled Jesse Jackson: An Emerging Voice in 1963 America. The exhibition would include artifacts and documents about Jackson in during that period.

But — as with most aspects of the museum’s strategic plan — funding is an issue. With regard to the Jackson exhibit, “Rev. Jackson will identify funding sources,” the plan stated.

Swaine, the chief financial officer, responded to questions from CJ by email.

“I will be meeting with the board on the strategic plan in April, so I will be less inclined to go into the plan at this time, Swaine wrote. “I am working this out with the board and would not want to get ahead of them.”

Regarding the museum’s efforts to present a Jackson exhibit, Swaine wrote: “I have not had any direct discussions with Mr. Jackson, that was a June 2013 discussion with the prior executive director. So, there is not need to continue to push this narrative at this point.”