Last summer, members of the Canyon County Historical Society worried aloud theyd have to close their museum in Nampas old railroad depot after county commissioners decided to spread the countys historic preservation funds among various groups.
That move lopped off two-thirds of the historical societys expected funding for the new fiscal year. But the private nonprofits two museums the Nampa depot and a Caldwell operation that is all-volunteer remain.
Survival is the name of the game now, CCHS President Bob Wagner said.
Museum director/curator Wendy Miller retired as planned and will not be replaced. The office manager was laid off. The societys sole remaining paid employee, museum attendant Tom Marks, saw his hours whittled to about 15 per week.
Volunteers, including board members are taking turns staffing the depot museum which is now open three days a week, down from four, with an earlier closing time.
The board has kind of divided the responsibilities amongst ourselves and were doing the best we can, Wagner said. Im the one that signs the paychecks now. Granted, its only one employee.
Foot traffic through the museums is holding steady, he said, despite a $1 hike in admission fees prompted by budget cuts. On Saturday, about 15 people toured the museum in the first hour it was open.
Weve had a steady stream ever since we opened our doors, said board Treasurer Carol Murphy, who was on duty Saturday.
Kids used museum-supplied quarters to run the depots centerpiece train set while adults looked over displays on homesteading, Nampas grand but demolished Dewey Palace Hotel and the Union Pacific Railroad.
The museums railroad theme is reinforced periodically when freight trains pass just outside the 1903 depot, rattling windows and doors.
COUNTY FUNDING CUTS
For about four decades, Canyon County has collected a small dedicated tax levy up to 0.012 percent of each dollar of taxable value for historic preservation. Until this year, the Canyon County Historical Society has been the sole beneficiary, recently drawing about $90,000 per year.
But this year the county invited other history groups across the county to submit requests and wound up divvying the levy funds among six applicants, most from the countys small towns. The county historical society got $30,000.
Wagner and other historical society advocates protested passionately, but small-town historical societies hailed the change as a long-needed boost to their efforts.
The money comes from taxpayers everywhere in the county, and it needs to benefit everybody in the county, David Ferdinand, then chairman of the county commission, said in August.
Joe Bell, a former curator at the depot museum who served as the countys historic preservation coordinator last year, said hes happy the CCHS museums are still open, but also happy small towns including Middleton and Notus now have money to preserve their history and make it available to visitors.
When the CCHS board was fighting to preserve its traditional funding, board members blasted Bell in a public letter, calling the countys move a plan to cripple the Canyon County Historical Society by a disgruntled former employee.
Bell stresses that commissioners made the funding decisions without any direction from him, although he did advocate some levy funds be extended to help historic preservation efforts in the countys small towns. Together, he said, the small-town museums and their larger counterparts in Nampa and Caldwell could foster increased heritage tourism in Canyon County.
I never wanted to hurt them (the historical society), Bell said. All I did was ask the question, What about the smaller communities?
HOPES FOR THE FUTURE
Wagner said the board is looking at a lot of different ways to regain funding, including the possibility of hiring someone on a commission-only basis to drum up some new revenue sources.
We have applied for several grants, but grants arent for operating expenses, he said.
The CCHS board recently added new member categories for benefactors who want to invest bigger bucks into preserving local history, he said, and they hope that history-minded area residents will remember the museum in their wills.
We would love to be self-sufficient, he said.
Membership has gone up a little since word of the funding cuts got out, Wagner said, and weve had several people stop by and write us a check for $20. Thats wonderful.
We have almost 300 members now, he said. If we could triple that, we could start to look at maybe hiring somebody.
We would dearly love to be in the position to have a full-time curator again.
Historical society functions, such as research, have fallen by the wayside, he said, but new funding sources could correct that.
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447