AN effort to relocate the Bartholomew County Historical Society to a larger and more visible facility in downtown Columbus is on hold.

The 95-year- old organization still plans to move its headquarters from the McEwen-Samuels-Marr House on Third Street to the former Brad’s Furniture Gallery at 538 Washington St., said Tamara Iorio, president of the historical society’s board of directors.

But before initiating a major fundraising effort, Iorio said the board first needs to find the right balance in maintaining four main areas — finances, staffing, mission and programming.

After announcing the purchase of the Washington Street building in December 2014, the historical society began down a path to invest $1.8 million for a new headquarters and museum during the next three to five years.

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“Everyone on the board is envisioning this fantastic museum — a tri-state facility, with perhaps the capacity of holding exhibits touring the country,” board treasurer Polly Verbanic said.

To start shaping that vision into reality, the next steps were to secure an architect to draw up plans, as well as hire John Guthrie of Louisville as a consultant and director of campaign planning, Iorio said.

Guthrie, who works for Ashley | Rountree & Associates, received permission from the board to first perform a feasibility study before planning out the campaign, Iorio said.

But when feedback from the architect and consultant started coming in last spring, the results weren’t what the board expected to hear.

When preliminary design drawings were submitted, the board discovered its $1.8 million renovation estimate was too low.

The cost is now estimated at $2 million to $3 million, Iorio said.

Reducing expenses

With a large fundraising campaign on the horizon, then-executive director Julie Hughes began taking steps last year to reduce expenses, Iorio said.“The easiest way to do that is to cut staff hours,” she said. “It’s difficult, but I don’t think it’s that unusual with nonprofits.”Staff members who needed to increase their income were able to find other opportunities, Iorio said.

Adam Rediker was the first historical society employee to resign shortly after announcing his engagement to get married, Iorio said.

While no longer a paid employee, Rediker still remains active as a society volunteer, Iorio said.

After expressing a desire to save for her children’s education, part-time employee Jenny Dill McGill secured a better-paying position as assistant director of gift planning services for the IU Foundation, Iorio said.

In November, education manager Anna Barnett accepted an administrative position with the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis, Iorio said.

A short time later, Hughes announced she was stepping down as the organization’s top executive to attend Indiana University in Bloomington full time to earn a master’s degree in history.

Hughes said that by stepping down before the fundraising campaign began, it would serve the best interests of the organization and provide savings at a time when the society needed it the most.

Although board vice president Jason Hatton agrees, it was just after Hughes’ departure that he began hearing rumors about the society’s financial health.

But Hatton said he wasn’t surprised.

“Anytime you have high-profile turnovers, there are going to be pretty big questions surfacing about what is happening,” Hatton said.

One employee remains

Hughes’ departure left only one full-time employee, Cody Harbaugh, to run the museum, perform research, and take care of rentals, Iorio said.While some migh see the workforce reduction as dramatic, Iorio was quick to point out the historical society only had two employees until 2010.“We ramped up pretty quickly from two to five,” the board president said. “We thought we would need to hire someone pretty quickly, but Cody is doing a great job.”

Board members are stepping in to perform much of the work formerly done by employees, Iorio said. She includes herself in the group, taking on the responsibility of handling grant writing.

While an interim director is expected to be announced in early February, board members will conduct a study of staffing needs before moving forward to find a permanent director and fill other positions, Iorio said.

Whoever is chosen to lead the organization will need to have experience in fundraising, Iorio said.

Although she describes the departure of four employees as disruptive, that did reduce costs.

The organization, which reported expenses of $410,584 during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014, recently revised its 2016 budget to $232,000, the board president said.

“We don’t have any financial problems,” Iorio said. “We are really looking at this as an opportunity to emerge this year in a strong position.”

Hatton agreed, and said the funds not being spent on salaries can be best utilized for the moment on programming and consultation as the organization plans its future.

“I see a lot of new and exciting things coming up,” Hatton said.

Additional steps

But on Dec. 17, board members encountered another reason to delay fundraising when Guthrie presented three major steps he feels needs to be addressed to have a successful capital campaign. Improve communications between the organization and the community.Partner with other community organizations who may have the same goals.

Expand the 10-member board.

Although some board members were somewhat taken aback by Guthrie’s first suggestion, Iorio admits the society’s past communications efforts were mostly confined to paying society members.

“We’re going to try to do a better job with communicating with the whole community, so everyone knows what we are doing, and why we’re important,” she said.

After board members address the issues brought up by Guthrie, as well as finalize decisions regarding staffing needs, it’s likely they will set a schedule for launching their fundraising efforts, Iorio said.

Verbanic emphasized the board and society members are itching to get the campaign started.

“I can’t tell you when we’re going to do it,” Verbanic said. “But I can tell you that, whatever we do, we’re going to do it right.”

Bicentennial cutback

While insisting the board is taking necessary steps in the right direction, Iorio said she regrets educational programming has to be reduced during Indiana’s Bicentennial celebration.“It would be great if we were out three times a month doing programs this year,” she said. “But at least for the next four months, it’s not going to happen.”“We will be involved with the Bicentennial,” Hatton said. “Just not the way we were originally planning to be.”

The organization is moving forward with plans to conduct its annual Spring on the Farm event in May, which Iorio describes as the society’s signature program.

Visitors and students learn about early 20th century agriculture and domestic farm life during the event, which is held at the society’s Henry Breeding Farm on County Road 100W near Edinburgh.

In order to provide enough manpower to stage the event, the historical society is teaming up with the Bartholomew County Library this year, Hatton said.

About the historical society

The mission of the Bartholomew County Historical Society is to educate the public on the county’s rich heritage, and to preserve it.

In December 2014, the historical society announced it had purchased the former Brad’s Furniture Gallery at 538 Washington St. for $450,000. The organization believes moving the museum and offices near kidcommons, The Commons and the Columbus Visitors Center will greatly enhance visibility and visits by patrons.

The current museum at 524 Third St. provides 3,500 square feet of space to house exhibits and offices, but half of it is on the second floor, which limits accessibility for the elderly and young children.

In contrast, the Washington Street building that once housed the Montgomery Ward department store was specifically designed to provide a large amount of commercial space. The two-story building has 5,640 square feet of usable space on the first floor, which would increase exhibit space for a growing number of museum artifacts.

Information: 812-372-3541.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.