Author: Jessie Holmes
The North Carolina Transportation Museum was just coming off a record-setting year when the COVID-19 pandemic shut it down in March 2020. This sprawling 60-acre historic site known for its raucous attractions, including train rides and fire truck festivals, fell silent for months before opening to limited capacity. Its biggest annual event, the Polar Express, was canceled that winter and despite creative outdoor-only activities like a drive-thru light display, attendance fell by 70%. At the same time, the museum still had to pay its bills.
“To run the site, we have contract services with janitorial and sanitation, we have security overnight here, our alarm services that keep the site safe,” says Mark Deaton, Director of Visitor and Administrative Services. “We saw those as essential functions that we were already contracted for.”
Deaton says the next couple of years were a balancing act, as the museum covered its essential expenses and maintained as many staff positions as possible, all with less revenue. Still, they rebuilt attendance to pre-pandemic levels by 2022, and so far, 2023 is faring even better. Deaton says a $280,000 grant from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) played a role in helping the museum cover costs. A small investment compared to the museum’s historic and economic value to its hometown of Spencer, and the state.
“We preserve the history and heritage of North Carolina,” says Deaton. “And our site in 2022, as we recovered, we brought $23 million to Rowan County. We’re very proud of that.”
State Invests ARPA in Historic Treasures
Congress passed ARPA in 2021 to help the nation mitigate the economic and public health impacts of COVID-19. It provided North Carolina with $5.4 billion in State Fiscal Recovery Funds, a portion of which the General Assembly appropriated to historic sites impacted by a loss of visitation and revenue. The N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources distributes and monitors those grants with support from the N.C. Pandemic Recovery Office.
“Reading about history is one thing, but going and engaging with it at a real place where you can touch and actually feel it is very different,” says Dr. Darin Waters, DNCR Deputy Secretary for Archives and History.
Dr. Waters says it was important to ensure these state and national treasures, and the unique experiences they offer, would be available to future generations.
Battleship North Carolina Calls on its Reserves
That includes the ability to tour the most highly decorated American battleship of World War II. Now permanently moored in Wilmington, Battleship North Carolina received $1.4 million in ARPA funds. Prior to COVID-19, the memorial welcomed upwards of 300,000 people a year to explore its upper and lower decks through self-guided tours, gaining a better understanding and appreciation for life aboard the ship. But for most visitors the ship is not their only local destination.
“We’re sort of like the bait on the hook,” says Captain Terry Bragg, a retired Navy captain who has served as the memorial’s Executive Director for 15 years.
Captain Bragg says most of their visitors come from over two hours away, and after exploring the battleship they often spend more time and money at local restaurants, hotels, and stores. Like many historic attractions, it plays a vital role in the local economy.
But after a temporary closure, and an even longer period of COVID-19 measures and public caution, Battleship North Carolina made the rare decision to tap into some of its financial reserves. This allowed it to continue to cover expenses, like utilities, while preventing staff layoffs. The Battleship later used its ARPA grant to help replenish those reserves, stabilizing its budget and ensuring long-term financial health.
“We never left a bill unpaid, and we were still able to plan for those days when we reopened,” says Captain Bragg.
That reopening has proved highly successful. Captain Bragg says the Battleship is experiencing its best visitation in 21 years, with over 98,000 people visiting since October 2022.
Preserving Our Past to Build a Better Future
Other historic sites that received ARPA grants include Tryon Palace in New Bern and Roanoke Island Festival Park. The state relies on historic sites like these to help us better understand the past, provide authentic educational opportunities, and drive tourism. The unique ways in which they responded to COVID-19, such as developing new online and outdoor programming, will also serve to make historic sites more resilient in the long-term.
As a historian, Dr. Waters also sees the pandemic itself as another historic learning opportunity for our state and our nation.
“It will be interesting to see how this period will provide an opportunity for future generations to actually engage and get through any other challenges that are obviously going to come,” says Dr. Waters.
But of course, those lessons can only be imparted if they are protected and preserved throughout history.