Slump hits High Desert Museum, forcing staff cutbacks

One of Bend’s most prestigious, high-profile tourist attractions, The High Desert Museum, endured a tearful day Friday as 7 ½ positions were cut from the payroll to avert a projected $240,000 budget shortfall in the post-Sept. 11 tourism slump.

Add in a half-dozen positions eliminated by attrition since the museum’s (http://www.highdesert.org) fiscal year began May 1, and the 50-person staff has shrunk by more than a dozen jobs. But after breaking the news at a staff meeting, museum President Forrest Rodgers said the cuts, while painful, are necessary to avoid the red ink and become stronger for the future.

The key factor in the decision to trim staff at the museum, which marks its 20th anniversary next year, is completion of a building campaign that began in 1994 and culminated in the opening five months ago of the 7,500-square-foot Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center and its permanent exhibit, “Raptors of the Desert Sky.”

“In the last seven years, we doubled the size of our facility, added new exhibits and built our reputation,” Rodgers said. “But our program offerings and staff grew in large part with positions funded by the capital campaign.”

The original budget for the current fiscal year was $3.4 million, while the capital campaigns that stretch back almost a decade (including the initial, “silent” phase) raised more than $20 million.

In fact, Rodgers said, over the past five years, the campaign paid for almost 30 percent of all personnel costs. “This is the second year of a 2-year plan to eliminate our dependence on that source of funds,” Rodgers said. With the Birds of Prey Center complete, he said, “we need to adjust the size of the museum to predictable and sustainable revenue levels.”

“It’s not a very happy day,” said Denise Costa, the museum’s communications manager. “There’s a lot of tears around here today. Not only because we’re relatively modest in size, but because of the kind of place this is, this is a second family for most people. They really work together.”

Cuts hit many areas of museum; minimal impact seen on visitors

Costa noted that these are not the first round of staff cuts to occur at the museum in recent years – nor was the 50-person staff the museum’s employment peak. Several years ago, more than 60 people worked at the museum, which now includes almost 53,000 square feet of exhibits and amenities in the main building, and a quarter-mile trail to another 32,000 square feet of exhibits and animal habitats.

Staff cuts were made in a wide swath of departments, from administration and facilities to development, education, exhibits and communications. More service and program cuts are “likely,” Rodgers said, but he expects the facility to be able to minimize the impact on visitors and program participants.

“We’ll make many of those decisions in the next four to six weeks, as we go through the end of the calendar-year giving cycle and begin our planning for the next year’s budget, which we have to present to the board’s executive committee in February,” he said. “Our goal is to keep (further cuts) as small as possible. The probability is that any significant reductions will be just programs that we don’t do.”

“We are reprioritizing our services and programs, and will focus on the core functions of the museum,” Rodgers said. “But we also will invest more heavily in marketing and fund-raising activities, to generate revenue.”

Rodgers and Costa said the current year’s budget was an optimistic one, designed with “aggressive” revenue forecasts. It also depended heavily on proceeds from the museum’s exhibit design contracts with other institutions, such as the National Park Service. That’s proved to be another blow, as federal projects have been delayed by post-Sept. 11 budget negotiations, so those revenues won’t be as high as expected.

The museum was running ahead of fund-raising goals as recently as October, but has had to cut its donations forecast due to the economic slump, officials said. Total attendance is up 4 percent from the last fiscal year, but paid attendance is down 1 percent. (Unpaid attendance includes members and passes donated by the museum to community groups and individuals.)

Costa said, “The goal of all this is to do it in ways that don’t affect the core” of the museum. “We’re talking streamlining of educational programs. We’ve got feedback on which ones got a good response and which one’s didn’t.”

Some long-time workers got pink slips; new 2-day admission working well

The layoffs and reductions, totaling 27 percent of the full-time staff, didn’t just affect recent hires, either, Costa said: One person who was let go had been with the museum for 10 ½ years, another longer than that. Recent attrition (not filling positions when people left) helped soften the ax’s blow, she said, noting that just one person who resigned is being replaced, a computer specialist.

The recent economic downturn is affecting “not just museums, but all kinds of businesses, too,” Costa said.

The museum also changed its admissions-price format this summer, charging a bit more (from $4 for kids 5-12 to $8.50 for adults), but making regular admission good for two consecutive days. Costa said the change has gone very well: “We were hoping people would take advantage of it, and a lot of people are. They say, `We’re delighted – this is great.’”

And the cuts don’t mean the museum isn’t working on new exhibits or programs, which Rodgers said will happen “more and quicker” than in the past, though perhaps on a less-grand scale in many cases. One already under construction and due to open next spring is a “fire trail,” a paved and unpaved interpretive trail that will help teach about the natural elements of fire on the high desert’s forest, from lightning strikes to the undergrowth and “ladder fuel” that can cause fires to spread more quickly.

“The reality is that this stage in the museum’s history was going to happen,” Rodgers said. “And the longer it was delayed, the harder it was going to be. It’s difficult … but absolutely essential for the museum, in order to build for its long-term health and growth.”