Facing financial woes, Colonial Williamsburg to restructure

Colonial Williamsburg will outsource many of its commercial operations and lay off workers in response to declining attendance and long-running financial challenges, the living history museum's top official announced Thursday.

The foundation that operates the eastern Virginia attraction is in final negotiations with four companies that will manage its golf operations, retail stores, much of its maintenance and facilities operations and its commercial real estate, President and CEO Mitchell Reiss said.

"For a variety of reasons - business decisions made in years past, less American history being taught in schools, changing times and tastes that cause us to attract half the visitors we did 30 years ago - the Foundation loses significant amounts of money every year," he wrote in a letter shared publicly.

The foundation's operating losses last year totaled $54 million, or $148,000 per day. It also borrowed heavily to improve its hospitality facilities and visitors center and ended 2016 with more than $300 million in debt, Reiss said.

Combined, those factors put pressure on the foundation's endowment, with withdrawals reaching as high as 12 percent per year. At that rate, the approximately $684 million endowment could be exhausted in just eight years or perhaps sooner.

Reiss said in an interview that the foundation's financial straits meant its mission of historic preservation "was at risk, quite frankly."

Colonial Williamsburg is the world's largest living history museum, with costumed interpreters who re-enact 18th century life amid more than 600 restored or reconstructed original buildings.

The city southeast of Richmond served as Virginia's capital from 1699, when nearby Jamestown burned to the ground, until 1780. It fell into disrepair but was revived in the 1920s in a restoration project financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Reiss said 71 jobs from departments across the foundation will be eliminated by year's end, and another 262 employees may choose to work for the contract companies, which agreed to hire and retain eligible employees for at least the next year. Colonial Williamsburg will have just under 2,100 employees when the process is finished, he said.

None of the costumed interpreters will be affected, he said.

"If there was any other way to save the Foundation, I would eagerly have taken it," Reiss wrote in his letter. "But there isn't."

In addition to taking steps to "right the financial ship," the foundation has been working to create a more immersive experience, hoping to reverse the decades-long decline in visitors, which peaked at 1.3 million in 1976, Reiss said. It has added a colonial shooting range and a kids' archaeological dig, and a hatchet-throwing site is opening this summer, he said.

The foundation also invested in renovating the hotels and golf courses owned by its for-profit side, which has never been profitable, he said.

"We want to be a world class destination," Reiss said.