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Jefferson County Historical Society made a $14,000 profit in 2012

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Treating the Jefferson County Historical Society as a small business has proven successful for board members and staff. For the first time in many years, the agency ended the year in the black.

Executive Director William G. Wood said the nonprofit museum at 228 Washington St. focused on decreasing expenses and increasing revenues. That, combined with community engagement and volunteerism, let the agency go from ending 2011 with a $22,000 loss to making an approximately $14,000 profit in 2012.

“We looked at it from the standpoint of let’s not assume we’ll get another big influx of cash; let’s look at it from the standpoint of we have to generate income for expenses,” Mr. Wood said. “At that time, we wanted to increase programs. We said, especially in the beginning, we need to ramp up as quickly as possible so people know we’re here.”

Throughout 2012, he said, agency staff, board members and volunteers came together to develop a robust program and event schedule to attract new and former visitors to the museum. That was a big shift from the agency’s long, patterned history of having to rely on last-minute or luck-of-the-draw donations or bequests from north country residents, he said.

“We’re not comfortable; we can’t sit back and say, ‘OK, we’re done,’” Mr. Wood said. “We see our efforts work, but we can’t rest or stop. We have to continually reach out to the community.”

Income jumped from about $203,000 in 2011 to $230,000 in 2012. Mr. Wood said that happened for a few reasons: increased membership in the Babcock Society, where people pledge $1,000 a year for 10 years; the Historical Society 500, a fundraiser sponsored by the Watertown Daily Times, which generated more than $30,000; the year-end fund drive, which generated more than $10,000; and individual, family and business memberships that totaled more than $55,000.

Business advertisement in the museum’s newsletter, rent from the city of Watertown for the Stone Street parking lot and entrance fees made for combined income of $27,300. Sponsorship and other factors, including a $40,000 bequest from Elsa F. Grant, a former Watertown City School District teacher who died Dec. 16, made up the rest of the income. The $14,000 profit for 2012 doesn’t include the $20,000 from the first bequest payment to the historical society. The final $20,000 payment will come this year.

“That’s our hope going forward — to being in a little bit more of (everything) to keep growing that base,” Mr. Wood said. “We’re reaching out in different directions, and try not to leave our traditions behind. We can’t grow beyond what our staff and volunteers can handle.”

Simultaneously, he said, the agency has to reduce expenses where necessary. As the agency monitors its cash flow, it will decide an appropriate time later this year when it will hire a part-time curator to replace the one who left last year. Careful spending has allowed the agency to decrease its expenses from $225,000 in 2011 to about $195,000 in 2012.

All programs should at least break even, Mr. Wood said. While the museum will continue its core programs into 2013, such as a model train display in the early winter, the Easter Eggstravaganza in early spring, Heritage Days in late spring/early summer and the Victorian Faire in November, it also will become more active in outreach efforts to local businesses. Slack Chemical owner Robert R. Sturtz already has agreed to cover admission costs for the 2013 Heritage Days, which is going back to a two-day event this June.

“It’s an exciting time, but I don’t want to be overconfident in what we’re doing,” Mr. Wood said. “Our future, however, is looking brighter.”

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