KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — The loss of the Kennebunkport Historical Society’s executive director has created turmoil on the organization’s board, but its president said he is hoping to move forward in a positive direction.
The six members of the society’s executive committee voted unanimously at the end of July to eliminate Executive Director Susan Edwards because of financial constraints.
Edwards had been with the organization for the past three years.
Following that decision, office manager Jenne James resigned and during a July 31 board meeting, four members of the organization’s nine-member board of directors also resigned.
“I am just sad to see us without a museum professional to make sure that we make no missteps in treating our collection,” said Jean Betses, who resigned from the board. “I think what they have done is penny wise and pound foolish. The society needs a professional to oversee the use and the preservation and conservation of our collection.”
Betses said the organization has made great strides in recent years, spreading awareness of its work and gaining support and trust in the community. With the loss of the executive director, she is worried that will be damaged.
“We have now given ourselves another black eye,” she said. “I do think that our image in the community and our ability to raise funds was definitely much stronger with Susan at the helm. She was a wonderful asset.”
Edwards said prior to the executive committee’s decision, the board of directors voted to extend her contract to October. Then, on June 23, she received a termination letter. It did not give a reason for her termination, Edwards said.
Litchfield said that while the board did vote to extend Edwards’ contract, she did not sign the document.
Litchfield has said the decision to eliminate the executive director’s position was strictly financial. The organization’s total revenue of approximately $200,000 this past year was not meeting expenses, including the nearly $70,000 in salary and benefits for the executive director, and the funds necessary to maintain the society’s properties, he said.
If the organization did not make financial changes, Litchfield said, it would be operating in the red by the end of its fiscal year in December. Revenue is produced through interest from the organization’s endowment, membership and events, he said, and is spent on operating costs for the organization’s properties and traditional business costs. Interest rates have dropped, Litchfield said, and expenses have increased. Heating White Columns, for example, has increased “tremendously” from the year before.
“All of that enters into our expenses,” Litchfield said.
The organization’s endowment currently contains approximately $500,000, Litchfield said, and would need to grow to two or three times that amount to support the executive director position and other costs.
The Designer Show House held last summer at the Kenneth Roberts estate, which was designed to be a major fundraiser for the organization, brought in $100,000, with a net profit of $50,000 after expenses. The organization did not hold the event this year but was hopeful that other events, including a kitchen tour, would generate more revenue than they in fact did, Litchfield said.
“We’re halfway through the year and we just weren’t going to generate the money to support the payroll,” he said. “If payroll were more evenly distributed, some income throughout the year from membership and events could go towards maintenance.”
Litchfield said there is maintenance that has been deferred and needs to be done at the organization’s Nott House, now known as White Columns, including painting and work on gutters and the roof, totaling more than $100,000.
In addition, the organization will be exploring the possibility of a capital campaign in the coming months to support the expenses, he said.
Litchfield, who was not on the board when Edwards was hired, said he did not know what the organization’s revenue was at the time.
He said the position of office manager will have to be filled soon, and he hopes the organization will be in a financial state to again hire an executive director in the future.
The Historical Society has a supportive group of volunteers who will meet needs following the loss of Edwards, he said, and there are two longtime volunteers who are dedicated to managing and overseeing the organization’s collection.
In the meantime, there are a number of positives happening within the society, Litchfield said, from the opening of the First Families Museum at White Columns to the organization’s 13th Annual Golf Tournament coming up Sept. 20. The tournament will take place at the Cape Arundel Golf Club and the $110 cost per person, including a cart, the greens fee, a silent auction, a post-tourney celebration, a barbecue and more.
The society is also opening its doors to the First Families Museum from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 17 to benefit Patrick’s Pals, in support of the 2-year-old son of a Secret Service agent to President George H.W. Bush. The boy is battling leukemia and losing his hair due to treatment. His story inspired the former president, and members of his Secret Service detail, to shave their own heads. The Aug. 17 event is co-sponsored by the York County Coast Star.
Open since July 15, the First Families Museum at White Columns has already seen more than 200 visitors, 100 more than last year’s total visitors, Litchfield said. Admission is $7 for those over 12. The organization hopes the museum will continue to succeed and that White Columns will continue to be a vibrant part of the community, he said.
“We are working desperately hard to find ways to make it what it is — an extremely valuable piece of property. It’s an iconic piece of the streetscape,” Litchfield said. “This board is dedicated to the preservation of White Columns and not only the preservation but creating it as a vibrant part of the community.”