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Wednesday, August 20, 2003


Historic Area layoffs likely in October

By Bill Tolbert
The Virginia Gazette

Published August 16, 2003

WILLIAMSBURG -- Interpreters and staff in the Historic Area will learn this fall about cutbacks to pare the payroll and trim the deficit.

Rex Ellis, Colonial Williamsburg's vice president for the Historic Area, discussed programming and operations in a July 25 memo to staff, which was leaked to the Gazette.

“Our objective is to have all programming and staffing decisions made by the beginning of October,” Ellis wrote. “At that time we will be able to give specific information to you regarding how these changes will affect you in particular.”

Rumors have circulated for some time that CW will make layoffs in the Historic Area to address a budget shortfall of $30 million. President Colin Campbell telegraphed the cutbacks months ago when he declared the Historic Area was producing too many programs.

Around 800 people work in the Historic Area, most of them in costume. The payroll is believed to approach $20 million, so it's highly attractive to budget-cutters in the Goodwin Building.

Interpreters dread the waiting.

“I'd like to know as soon as possible so I can know what's happening,” said one costumed interpreter. “But it's nerve-racking to have to wait. I can only hope.”

Another interpreter said the wait will only fuel the rumor mill. “We're already hearing all sorts of things about cutbacks and closings. Waiting until October won't do anything to shut that up.”

One rumor that persists is that the Historic Area will close for the winter after Christmas, but management steadfastly denies that.

Ellis wrote that he has met weekly with his directors to discuss the future of programs and operations. Specific staffing decisions haven't been made yet.

Any details about the number of workers who face layoffs remain closely guarded. Ellis said he and the directors will meet with staff next month, but specifics still aren't likely by then. “I want to be clear about what you can expect in that meeting,” Ellis wrote.

“At that time, we will share our plan for 2004 Historic Area operations, which will include site openings, an annual operating schedule, programming and staffing levels in general, and how it will all be implemented. We will not have concrete information on how this will affect each individual.”

Ellis conceded anxiety over the wait.

“It is critical, however, that we take the time to ensure that the operating model, which will affect all of us in the Historic Area as well as other parts of the foundation, is well-coordinated and thoroughly examined,” he wrote.

Ellis and the administration is looking at ways to tell the “Becoming Americans” story through the entire year, with a “model that is adjustable on a seasonal basis.” That's considered code for ratcheting down the staff sharply as winter sets in. Hundreds are laid off anyway in January, so the added emphasis on “seasonality” is considered ominous.

The programming will include the years 1773-76. Certain core programs and activities will be used all the time.

The Ellis memo includes nothing about the future or the fate of Carter's Grove Plantation, which will be closed for at least two years. Some fear the plantation, which had been the crux of CW's portrayal of slaves, may never reopen. Because it is regarded as a 1930s home, historians within the foundation consider it irrelevant to the story of the 1770s.

Ellis and Historic Area directors have met to discuss the “ideal guest experience,” and that the experience should be the core of what guests get throughout the year.

The goal is to balance the responsibility to “educate and engage” the audience with attention to guest service.

“We believe this experience should be educational and, when appropriate, fun and entertaining,” he continued in the memo.

“It should also be hassle-free with fewer lines and minimal waiting. Guest should have access to basics such as clean restrooms, water, food and yes, benches to rest on. We should provide an effective orientation so that they understand who we are as a living history museum, and the best ways to experience the town given the time they have and their particular interests. We will offer fewer programmatic choices, but the menu of choices will be the best we have.”


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