Press-Republican

July 28, 2008

Fort considers collection sales

Fort Ticonderoga considers selling collection assets

By LOHR McKINSTRY

TICONDEROGA -- With Fort Ticonderoga millions in the red, its Board of Trustees held a closed session to look for ways to escape financial chaos.

Fort President Peter S. Paine Jr. had seven possible scenarios for raising money.

His ideas, outlined in a memo, are:

Applying for short-term loans.

Starting a new capital campaign to raise $3 million to $5 million.

Asking the state for a bailout or to take over ownership of the fort.

Getting the Essex County Industrial Development Agency to finance a $3 million to $5 million loan.

Selling property or collection assets, such as paintings.

The fort owns numerous valuable paintings by artists such as Thomas Cole, Hugh Reinagle, William Guy Wall and Jacques Gérard Milbert.

Closing next year. The fort would either close for the year or until its financial issues were resolved, Paine said.

ALMOST BROKE

The construction of the fort's Deborah Clarke Mars Education Center cost $23 million, and fundraising fell short by at least $1 million.

"The fort is running through its available endowment funds to pay the Mars Education Center bills, and, in the absence of a major infusion of funds, the fort will be essentially broke by the end of 2008," Paine said in the memo.

He specifically mentioned selling Cole's painting, which is worth millions of dollars.

The fort is in possession of Cole's 1831 painting "Ruins of Fort Ticonderoga," but the painting's ownership is in question.

It was turned over to the fort by Stephen and Sarah Pell, along with land and other collection items owned by the Pells. The 1944 agreement between the Pells covers only the real estate, however.

The Pell family, which loaned many paintings and artifacts to the museum, has notified the fort it may not sell any of those items. It was the Pells who acquired the fort in 1816, and opened it to the public in 1908. Operations were turned over to the non-profit Fort Ticonderoga Association in the 1930s.

Paine also mentioned selling Charles Polk's painting of George Washington, and a nearby farm the fort owns.

Paine and Westbrook are asking the State Board of Regents for an exemption to sell paintings to raise operating funds. The regents would have to approve any such sales.

ATTENDANCE

To generate more revenue, the fort raised its adult admission from $12 to $15 this year. Despite the hike, the fort says attendance is up about 14 percent.

From a high of about 126,000 in 1998, visitors had fallen to a low of about 85,000 a year in 2006 but came up slightly last year.

Attendance at historic re-enactments has been up by about 30 percent, said fort Director of Finance Kelly O. Rafferty.

She said the Education Center is a great accomplishment.

"The challenge is the last million dollars of fundraising that we're struggling with. But one thing that affects us is the decline in interest in history, in general."

From a high of about 110,000 in the late 1990s, visitors have fallen to about 80,000 a year.

Rafferty said people are looking for amusement, not history.

"We're losing attendance numbers every year at a pretty dramatic pace. The challenge is, what do we offer visitors now? If we can attract more people into the town, the quality of life will be better for all of us."

PROJECT DELAY

Restoration of the fort's pavilion, the former Pell summer house, was to be the next project but may be postponed, she said.

"Because of finances, that project will be at least four or five years out."

Some of the problems began when Forrest Mars Jr., the billionaire co-owner of the Mars Inc. candy company, and his wife, Deborah, a Ticonderoga native, announced they were ending their support for the fort.

Mr. Mars cited disagreements with fort Executive Director Nicholas Westbrook.

The Marses paid for most of the Deborah Clarke Mars Education Center construction but left before it was finished. They did not attend the center's dedication earlier this month.

DIRECTOR SEARCH

Mr. Mars said they might consider coming back if the fort had new leadership but didn't know if they would be welcomed.

The fort's Board of Trustees has set up an executive-director search committee, headed by Calvin Staudt, a former International Paper Ticonderoga mill manager.

The committee has $100,000 in dedicated funds previously donated by Mr. Mars.

Some members of the Board of Trustees wanted Westbrook to announce his retirement after the fort's annual meeting earlier this year. He did not do so, instead saying he wanted to stay.

TRANSFORMATION'

Westbrook said gloom-and-doom stories about the fort leave out what the Mars Education Center represents.

"The missing story is an incredibly dramatic transformation at Fort Ticonderoga. It leaves us stronger than ever."

Transformation of the fort from a seasonal institution to a year-round facility was the key concept the center made possible, he said.

"This is really a huge leap for us into the 21st century. It's the first green' building to be built in Essex County. It's heated and cooled by geo-thermal wells."

It means visits by more school groups and more educational programs at the fort, he said.

"There's a whole lot going on here that's exciting."

lmckinstry@pressrepublican.com