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Historic losses in Odessa

Amanda Parrish * Delaware
aparrish@doverpost.com
Dover Post

Tours, Cantwell’s Tavern and special events are large revenue sources for the Historic Odessa Foundation. All that came to a halt when the pandemic hit in March.

Debbie Buckson, executive director, said they could lose more than $100,000 by the end of 2020.

“Schools tours, weddings, special events are big revenue streams for us, tourism is a big revenue stream for us and of course that's all been zero,” she said. “We have been very strategic in how we had dealt with this, and we are being extremely careful in our budgeting process.”

According to HOF’s Form 990s — a nonprofit informational tax form — from 2015-17, the museum makes about $300,000 per year from sources other than donations and contributions. The 2017 form is the most recent Form 990 filing available for the foundation.

Cantwell’s Tavern reopened for dine-in service June 1, and guided tours are expected to resume in July, but Buckson said the losses through the spring have been difficult to weather.

Loss of revenue

Even though the Historic Odessa Foundation is a nonprofit, Buckson said they are responsible for huge properties that rely on the funds from events and tours.

“We have six buildings that are over 250 years old,” she said. “We aren't spending money we don't have to, but we still have to keep the lights on and the air conditioning running and the grass cut. It's a lot and it's very difficult when your revenue stream comes to a halt overnight.”

HOF has more than $6.6 million in assets, according to its 2017 Form 990, which largely consists of the buildings.

Buckson said they applied for grants through the federal government CARES Act — a law intended to address the economic fallout of the pandemic — but there has been significant financial pressure.

“We will be okay with some help, but it's been very difficult,” she said.

She said the foundation received funds from the CARES Act Payment Protection Program so none of their employees had to take pay cuts. Buckson said the foundation has two full-time employees, including herself, and about nine part-time.

Buckson said many summer weddings — which contribute to HOF’s revenue — have canceled, but a couple smaller ones that fall within Gov. John Carney’s gathering restrictions are still scheduled. Carney said groups of 250 people or fewer are allowed to gather outdoors as of June 1.

With Cantwell’s Tavern open again, adhering to social distancing requirements, people and revenue will begin to return, Buckson said.

“Cantwell's Tavern provides a significant amount of operating budget on a monthly basis,” she said. “Of course, they were takeout only, which brought revenue way down.”

HOF rents out the building to Ashby Hospitality Group, which runs the restaurant. The foundation receives rent and a portion of food and drinks sales each month, Buckson said, about $100,000 a year.

Buckson said HOF has been in contact with other museums throughout the state. They are working closely together to figure out what their new business practices will be from marketing to finances as they all begin to reopen.

Guided tours again

The spring is a prime touring season for Historic Odessa, and the coronavirus restrictions forced them to close.

The tours of the 250-year-old homes will be allowed to start June 15 based on Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan. Spokesman John Xuereb said guided tours most likely won’t begin until early July as they train their 50 volunteers and implement health and safety guidelines, such as installing hand-sanitizing stations.

The properties have been available for outdoor walking while following social distancing guidelines since March 12. When they start guided tours, they will do it by reservation, and groups cannot be larger than five, including the guide.

A self-guided art exhibit will open in the Visitor’s Center gallery from July 1 to August 30.

“We are adapting the spaces within our period rooms, so we can safely accommodate a group of up to five people,” Buckson said. “There are some things that we are going to make some adjustments to make all these things possible.”

One of the foundation’s biggest draws is its living history educational program, which provides interactive tours and workshops for schools, like cooking in an 18th century kitchen. Those will likely be put on hold until spring 2021.

Schools went to remote learning in March, and there is still uncertainty about whether or not in-person learning will resume in the fall. Once she has a clear picture of what will be required for schools reopening, HOF will discuss how to restart their living history school tours.

“There is a lot of gray area with this, but we will adapt. Who knows, this could take us in new directions,” Buckson said. “This might force us to think about things in new ways and come up with something that's even better.

“This will change the way we do business. We have had to make these changes in the past and we will make them again. We are looking forward to the challenge and getting back to work and welcoming our public back.”

Historic Odessa Foundation 2017 revenue

Donations, grants: $483,474

Program services: $127,099

Facility rental: $55,990

Membership dues: $42,722

Investment income: $55

Cantwell’s Tavern: $102,070