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C historic sites in Asheville area face sharp budget cuts

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7/7/2011 - NC historic sites in Asheville area face sharp budget cuts
by Clarke Morrison - Asheville Citizen Times

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                                 ASHEVILLE -- State historic sites like Buncombe County's Thomas Wolfe Memorial and Vance Birthplace face staff and programming cuts under the state budget plan approved by the General Assembly.

But lawmakers restored enough funding to prevent closure of eight of North Carolina's 27 sites, said Keith Hardison, director of historic sites for the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources.

The Vance Birthplace had been targeted for closure in an earlier proposal.

The department's $73 million budget would be cut by about 15 percent under the 2011-12 spending plan approved last week. Gov. Bev Perdue has threatened to veto the proposal.

Hardison said it will take a while for the department to figure out what cuts to make at individual historic sites.

"Every site in the state will feel some pinch with the cuts we are experiencing," he said. "We have to share the pain so that no particular site has to bear all the burden. The primary impact will be money for things like supplies, programming and activities, and funding for temporary employees."

Thomas Wolfe Memorial manager Steve Hill said he worries what the future holds for the site if budget cuts continue, including possible closure.

"I don't know how severe this will get," he said. "I would like to say it would never close, but I don't know how things will play out in the future.

With an annual budget this year of about $287,000, the Asheville site attracts about 20,000 visitors a year. The staff of five conducts eight 45-minute tours a day and maintains an exhibit hall with artifacts from the boyhood home of the famous American author.

"There is a lot of the Wolfe story that is so much a part of Asheville's history. With Wolfe's notoriety and fame, if anything ever happened to this, it would be a great tragedy. It would leave a huge gap if this place were to go away."

The house was closed for six years after a fire set by an arsonist in 1998 heavily damaged the structure. It was restored at a cost of $2.4 million.

Department of Cultural Resources officials said in April that a budget proposal in the House to cut the department's budget by 30 percent would have mean the closure of Weaverville's Vance Birthplace and seven other historic sites.

The former boyhood home of Gov. Zebulon Baird Vance this year has a budget of about $150,000 and draws about 8,500 visitors a year.

The department, which maintains some 340 buildings, says its operations budget has already been cut by 61 percent over the past two years.

Hardison said it would be shortsighted to underfund the state's historic sites.

"Cultural travelers" constitute 40 percent of tourism in North Carolina and spend twice as much as the average tourist, he said.

"That's dollars in the hands of local folks, and that means jobs," Hardison said.

"We preserve the state's history. We are an economic generator."

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