Clock is ticking to save a chunk of Vt. history
By Bruce Edwards
STAFF WRITER | August 12,2012
Cassandra Hotaling Hahn / Staff photo ¬ The inside of the Vermont Marble Museum in Proctor is shown here on Monday.
PROCTOR — Paul Bruhn has no illusion it is going to be a piece of cake raising $880,000 to save the repository of the marble industry’s history in Vermont.
But Bruhn,head of The Preservation Trust of Vermont, remains optimistic that money and perhaps more can be raised before an end-of-the-year deadline to buy the Vermont Marble Museum.
Last month, the Trust signed an option to buy the Proctor museum from Martin and Marsha Hemm with the goal of transferring ownership to a nonprofit organization.
With three and a half months to raise $880,000, the Preservation Trust is now cranking up its fundraising efforts to save what historians say is nothing less than a vital piece of the state’s history.
“When we took this on we knew it would be a big challenge, and we’re right,” Bruhn said. “It’s a hard time to raise money but I’ve found a lot of interest in the museum and what it could be in the future, so we’re still very optimistic this could work.”
Bruhn said the decision-making process involved in making a donation or awarding a grant can take some time.
“Just the nature of these major requests, I think generally I’m not expecting a lot of news on that front until mid-September,” Bruhn said.
Even in the best of times, raising the amount of money Bruhn’s group is attempting to raise in such a short period of time would be a definite challenge, said Stuart Comstock-Gay of The Vermont Community Foundation, the largest foundation in the state with assets of $152 million.
“What we are aware of is that it is a challenging time for nonprofit organizations, particularly when you get to something like this, an $800,000 project,” said Comstock-Gay, who has worked on other projects with the Trust (www.ptvermont.org).
Although the Vermont economy is doing better than the national economy, he said, “people don’t have quite the same flexibility financially that they do in other times and they’re tending often to be more focused on a few things in their giving … so that makes it really difficult.”
Comstock-Gay said it’s highly unlikely that one donor will step forward to fund the museum purchase. Instead, he said the more likely scenario is that the Trust will have to cobble together grants and donations from a number of sources.
Last year, The Vermont Community Foundation made more than 2,200 grants totaling $16.3 million with 15 percent allocated for Irene relief. Most awards are in the $10,000 to $20,000 range, Comstock-Gay said, adding that the Middlebury foundation is made up of more than 600 charitable funds that target certain needs like the arts or affordable housing.
Connected by history
As the former headquarters of the Vermont Marble Company, Proctor is considered the birthplace of the marble industry in the state. One nonprofit organization with natural ties to the Vermont Marble Museum is the Carving Studio & Sculpture Center in West Rutland.
Carol Driscoll, the Carving Studio’s executive director, said her board of directors has discussed the possibility of assuming ownership of the museum, provided the Preservation Trust is successful in its fundraising effort.
“This is something they’re very interested in exploring,” Driscoll said. “We do have 25 years of developing our program and we are year-round and we have no debt and it couldn’t come at a better time.”
Based at the former Vermont Marble Company quarry and fabrication plant in West Rutland, the Carving Studio holds stone carving workshops and runs a gift shop.
Half of the nonprofit group’s $250,000 annual budget comes from workshop fees and sculpture sales. The other half is raised through donations and grants. Over the years, the Carving Studio has also raised $750,000 to restore the property.
Driscoll said fundraising is a “real challenge,” especially in a tough economy. “We are happy to say that we are not carrying any debt, even this year,” she said. “So that means since 2008, we have continued to run our programs at the same quality level without making cuts there.”
She added that during the summer months the Carving Studio has a very active internship program, which helps the bottom line.
The bottom line is what forced the hand of the Hemms when they announced this spring they could no longer afford to keep the for-profit Vermont Marble Museum open. The financial tipping point for the Hemms came last year when commercial customers in Proctor experienced a significant jump in their electric bills.
Bills for many commercial customers in town spiked following the sale of the Vermont Marble Power Division to Central Vermont Public Service Corp.
Thomas Denenberg,executive director of the Shelburne Museum, has offered his expertise in helping the Preservation Trust and the Vermont Marble Museum move forward.
Denenberg, who recently paid a visit to the museum, suggested that the Marble Museum reinvent itself with a focus on an educational component.
“I’ve been advocating they pay very close attention to the science side, the geology side … and how they would work with schools, because I think that’s something that’s very important for that museum,” Denenberg said.
As far as any interest in owning and running the marble exhibit, Denenberg said that’s unlikely given the Shelburne Museum’s focus on its new center for arts and education.
And while there’s no question fundraising is more difficult, he said it can be done. He said the Shelburne Museum is nearing the end of a $14 million capital campaign with $2 million left to go.
“Organizations with a good story, and can demonstrate they have their house in order on the business side, are doing very well,” Denenberg said. “And I think that’s what the marble museum will need to do, is really make the case.”
State in a bind
Although the museum holds a significant piece of Vermont history, the state is in no position to operate the museum as a state historic site.
“We have our own financial difficulties,” said John Dumville, historic sites section chief for the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. Dumville said the state faces a challenge just to maintain the Calvin Coolidge site. “It’s always a struggle to raise money,” he said.
The President Calvin Coolidge homestead in Plymouth Notch and Hubbardton Battlefield are two of the 10 state historic sites open to the public.
Dumville said he has an annual state-funded allocation of $500,000 to operate and maintain the sites. In addition, another $400,000 is raised through admission fees and gift shop sales.
The state is cognizant of the role the Vermont Marble Company played in shaping the state’s economic, social and political history.
“The marble industry in Vermont is one of our great legacies,” said Devin Colman, the state’s historic preservation review coordinator.
As an example, Colman said the marble museum has a room set aside with marble samples from around the world.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind resource for historians, contractors, architects,” Colman said. “If they need to match a stone on a building in Washington, D.C., that Vermont Marble provided the stone for, that library’s materials gives a direct link to exactly where the stone came from originally.”
Comstock-Gay and others said to lose the museum, its exhibits and artifacts would be a tremendous loss.
“This is a great resource and a really wonderful thing for the state,” he said.