Visitor’s center funding examined in council workshop

Culver's town council last week spent about an hour in discussion with representatives of Culver's new, "in the works" visitor's center as part of a work session in response to the center's request that the town help fund the project for this, its inaugural year.

George Duncan addressed the council on behalf of the center, which he said is being created in space at the First Farmers Bank on Jefferson and Main Streets in space which contiguous with the new location of the Culver museum sponsored by the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Culver. That organization is also presently the sponsoring entity providing 501C3, non-profit status for the visitor's center, though discussion took place during the March 25 work session centering on whether the center might transition to its own autonomous status, or partner with another organization.

Duncan, who said renovation of the space on the southwest end of the bank building had been delayed by installation of a new heating system at the bank, noted the visitor's center has already received $5,000 from Union Township and $5,000 from Marshall County Tourism, the latter for brochures.

He also explained most operational costs will be shared by the visitor's center and museum. The latter has a budget of $15,940 for 2014, with around $11,000 coming from the AHS. The visitor's center has been budgeted to operate at $11,790 for the year, leaving a request of $7,500 from the town by Duncan.

Council member Lynn Overmyer and president Ginny Munroe questioned why one-third of the money was listed as directed towards the museum, and the other two-thirds to the visitor's center, with Overmyer suggesting she understood the entire request had been for the visitor's center. Duncan said that request was limited to one-time start-up costs for the museum.

Asked by council member Bill Githens if the money being requested was a one-time or recurring expense, Duncan replied it was one-time for the moment but it was hoped to become an annual line item in the council's budget. Duncan also said advertising from businesses -- such as on the scrolling calendar of events planned for placement in the center's window -- could help offset the costs of running the center as well.

Some council members expressed concerns that, if the visitor's center doesn't become its own separate non-profit entity, there was a risk of funds being mixed in with those of the museum and other AHS monies. Githens suggested the center might align itself with Culver's Second Century Committee, which is in the process of becoming a formal not-for-profit organization.

Duncan acknowledged the need for the visitor's center to become autonomous and said that was being planned as well.
Kathy Clark, a member of the visitor's center committee, said the committee is "concerned that visitor's center money only be spent on what it was awarded for. We're not arguing to step away from the AHS at this time, but the money should only be spent on what it is earmarked for."

Duncan said he had met with Mike Overmyer of the Union Township board and Overmyer assured him the money was being spent correctly. Some debate between Clark and Duncan took place regarding the center's budget, and Clark expressed concern regarding communication to the visitor's center committee.

Audience member Joan Bess, a member of the committee governing the museum, noted the museum committee regularly discusses what funds can and cannot be spent on, with regards to the two respective projects.
Clark also said the Culver Redevelopment Commission has sold the visitor's center its website (promoted in a series of commercials airing on South Bend television in recent months) for one dollar, and while the CRC is unable to fund operating costs of the center, she intended to bring before the CRC board the funding of three kiosks to be placed in Culver promoting local amenities.

"I think it's a pretty small investment," said Munroe, adding that the Marshall County Community Foundation, on whose board she sits, "was beyond excited about this (visitor's center idea). I only spoke five minutes before the thumbs went up. It's innovative and it will reach a lot of people, and it will bring traffic to lots of people; plus, you can promote county events."

She added that the MCCF's $15,000 was "seed money" towards renovation of the building space.

Also in the audience was Anna Campbell, who Bess noted has a degree in tourism and hospitality and will bring expertise and experience to the visitor's center project, on whose committee she sits (she was formally hired by the AHS to direct its museum, it was noted).

Town manager Dave Schoeff, the town council's representative to the visitor's center committee, emphasized the center was able to be started because of the non-profit status of the AHS.

"To some degree they (the AHS) are being the parent and now the child grows up and wants to run the business. It sounds like that's where we're at."

He added he felt the Second Century Committee is "a perfect fit" for the visitor's center to transfer to, though SCC president Sue McInturff, in the audience, expressed concern the organization still has much work to do in order to be ready to take on such a project.

There was discussion, however, that management of the center by the SCC would give local businesses more oversight of it than having a local history-oriented organization manage it.

"As a business owner, the concept of a visitor's center is great," said McInturff. "The (Culver Chamber of Commerce) is not a paid chamber; so unless we pay somebody and have a new department, that's (the Chamber managing the visitor's center) not going to happen. I appreciate the concept and I'm very open and willing."

Council members agreed the $7,500 in town money should be directed exclusively to the visitor's center, rather than split with the museum, and that funds should be paid as claims were submitted on a regular basis, rather than in one lump sum, and that a contract would need to be signed between the two entities.

"Last summer this was just a conversation at the Lakehouse (Grille)," said Munroe. "Now it's a space. You went out and had grants rolling in. I've been through three grant rounds with the MCCF, and they've never been so excited."