Press-Republican

March 31, 2013

Fort Ti has best season in years

LOHR McKINSTRY
Press-Republican

TICONDEROGA — The leader of Fort Ticonderoga says the world-renowned historic landmark just had one of its best-ever seasons for financial growth and visitation.

Now the historic stone fortress is preparing for its 2013 season opening at 9:30 a.m. Friday, May 17.

Fort Ticonderoga CEO Beth Hill said paid attendance last season increased almost 6 percent, and admissions revenue was up 18 percent over 2011.

The nonprofit educational organization also saw increases in program revenue last year by 38 percent, and field-trip visits were up 8 percent. Donations have also risen, Hill said, including a 38 percent growth in Friends of Fort Ticonderoga memberships and 18 percent growth in annual giving.

“The turnaround has happened, and now we’re growing,” she said. “Fort Ticonderoga has been able to redefine what is possible and generate increased income and support to fulfill its mission.”

BOUNCING BACK

The fort needed to get on a different track if it was to survive, Hill said.

“This site is so significant, and we have to have a sustainable business model for our future. The baton has been passed to us.”

It was a remarkable year for the fort, Hill said.

“We have to make sure this is in place for future generations. We’re the connector between the past and the future. So far we have seen tremendous progress. The organization is thriving. It’s just a beginning.”

The fort had fallen on harsh economic times in the mid-2000s, at one point laying off staff and considering the sale of some of its collection to raise operating capital.

Hill was hired as Fort Ticonderoga’s executive director in 2010 with a mission to improve the situation.

She was recently named president and CEO by the organization’s Board of Trustees, superseding her previous title of executive director.

INCREASING REACH

One thing that’s new this year is the Fort Ticonderoga Teacher Institute, a program on Benedict Arnold and the fort’s history that will include three college credits. The fort is holding it Sunday, July 7, through Friday, July 12, in conjunction with the College of St. Joseph in Rutland, Vt.

“Our focus this year is increasing reach,” Hill said. “We’re going to nearly double our reach to students through our programs this year.”

The fort’s outreach programs this winter have been very popular, she said.

“We very much connected to our educational mission. We have staff going into the schools. We integrated elements of math and science, elements that are rooted in our history. That’s been a thriving program.”

This year, the fort will focus on 1755 events, Hill said.

“We’ll highlight the French troops, the Languedoc Regiment, that were here in 1755. We’ve delved into journals and letters. Those troops were a real mix. That’s our interpretive stance for this year.”

Stuart Lilie, fort director of interpretation, said visitors will interact with the reenactors portraying the Languedoc troops.

“The French soldiers who first fortified Carillon in 1755 were more than simply the enemy, part of the French and Indian menace that had threatened British colonists since the 17th century. The soldiers of the Languedoc Regiment were very real people who help inform our portrayal of them with personal letters, diaries and memoirs,” he said. 

“With the relentless authenticity that is unique to Fort Ticonderoga, our visitors will get to meet these French soldiers, discovering a whole new perspective on food, religion, clothing and military history.”

The French built the fort as Carillon in 1755, but it later fell into British and then American hands, was renamed Fort Ticonderoga and was finally abandoned after the American Revolution.

Also new this year is an 18th century medicine exhibit, “It Would Make A Heart of Stone Melt: Sickness, Injury and Medicine at Fort Ticonderoga.”

“It (medical care) was an important part of the lives of the soldiers who served here,” Hill said.

She said the exhibit will present an overview of medical practices, diseases and treatment of wounds for the French, British and American armies.

There’s also “Montcalm’s Cross,” Sunday and Monday, July 21 and 22, recognizing the July 1758 Battle of Carillon, in which British forces tried to take the fort from the French and were decimated.

Then “Brown’s Raid” in September will commemorate the 1777 capture by Col. John Brown of British outposts surrounding Ticonderoga.

“We’re really excited about those,” Hill said.

NEW STRATEGIES

Fort Ticonderoga completed Phase 1 of a three-part comprehensive plan last year. The plan, written by PGAV Destinations of St. Louis, Mo., a global-destination planning firm, identified a number of what were termed “Quick Win” strategies that were implemented by Fort Ticonderoga’s leadership team, Hill said.

“The Quick Wins are intended to provide immediate sources of revenue to fund operations, planning efforts and the implementation of plan elements. They required very little capital and provided opportunities to experiment with new strategies and tactics (in) the development of a long-term comprehensive plan.” 

She said the fort’s staff and Board of Trustees got behind the plan.

“The Quick Wins immediately improved the daily guest experience,” she said.

One of the suggestions was the fort’s controversial new site access strategy, which moved the admissions booth from the Log House Welcome Center to what had been the back entrance road to the fort.

That meant visitors had to pay the admission charge, which is $17.50, before entering the grounds. Previously, visitors could eat in the fort’s restaurant or shop in the bookstore or gift shop without paying for admission.

Hill said Ticonderoga residents and members of the Friends of Fort Ticonderoga are still admitted free of charge.

FOCUS ON FEATURES

Phase 2 of the comprehensive plan has started now and will include product development and an implementation plan for Fort Ticonderoga’s future capital growth.

“The goal of this phase is to envision new features that will simply create an exemplary experience for all of our guests for decades to come,” Hill said. “By constantly innovating and improving what our visitors and long-time supporters engage in here on-site, we can generate higher attendance and income, thereby fueling more investment and improvement into our beloved site.”

Part of Phase 2 is integrating more of the site’s landscape into its offerings, Hill said.

“The landscape is why we’re here. It’s aesthetically stunning and historically significant. We’re developing a trail that will extend through the battlefield and the French lines. We’re testing how we can use our greater landscape,” she added.

Besides the self-guided walk, there will also be boat tours on water, and the King’s Garden will unveil a new French garrison garden.

“We’ll have our interpretive staff in the garden and recreate it the way it was. We’ll actively engage the public in that area,” Hill said.

The Pavilion, a former hotel and summer house at the garden, will also get some use.

“We’ll offer a behind-the-scenes tour of the Pavilion once a week. (Curator of collections) Chris Fox will lead it. We’ll engage our visitors on preservation,” Hill said.

That’s part of long-term planning for the Pavilion building, she said.

“Everybody sees it’s in need of work. We’ll engage the public in our mission of preservation and restoration.”

’COMMUNITY ASSET’

Fort Ticonderoga is a great asset to the community, Ticonderoga Town Supervisor Debra Malaney said.

“They enhance our quality of life, and they attract thousands of visitors here every year. The fort is an important part of Ticonderoga.”

Fort Ticonderoga has been open to the public since 1909, the earliest restoration of its kind in the United States, which was led by the Pell family of Ticonderoga.

It preserves North America’s largest 18th century artillery collection; 2,000 acres of historic landscape on Lake Champlain; and the Carillon Battlefield, the largest series of untouched 18th century earthworks surviving in North America.

Fort Ticonderoga has about 70,000 visitors a year, and annually reaches more than 5,000 people with its outreach programs.

This year, it will be open Friday, May 17, through Sunday, Oct. 20, although there are programs year-round in the fort’s Mars Education Center. General admission to Fort Ticonderoga is $17.50 for adults, $14 for those 62 and over, and $8 for children 5 through 12. Children 4 and under are admitted free of charge.

Fort Ticonderoga has trademarked the name “America’s Fort” and was recently lauded as a top destination in the Adirondacks by U.S. News and World Reports Travel.

“We came out of last season very, very strong,” Hill said. “It is really energizing. We have an amazing team here. They are passionate and committed.”

Email Lohr McKinstry:lmckinstry@pressrepublican.com