Donors help keep Virginia Living Museum from closing

Trustee leads fundraising effort to keep museum from closing

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Print this page by Elizabeth Cooper

It was a staggering prospect. Because of the nation’s deepening financial crisis, a bank in 2008 called in two of the Virginia Living Museum’s loans totaling $9 million. The Newport News museum could either pay off the loans within the next year or face extinction.

As the Peninsula’s most visited attraction, the Virginia Living Museum hosts more than 250,000 visitors each year, including 8,000 schoolchildren. They encounter endangered red wolves, fish with no eyes, and frogs that change colors. They can touch live spider crabs and fossilized dinosaur tracks, while also checking out hands-on exhibits and displays showcasing more than 250 living species native to Virginia. Joseph R. Witt knows how valuable the museum is, especially considering that many youngsters in the sprawling Hampton Roads area never get to see or touch nature up close. So when trouble arose, Witt sprang into action.

Even though his two-year term as president of the board of trustees was coming to an end, Witt gamely agreed to head the museum’s Opportunity Fund Campaign to raise the money needed to retire its debt. An executive vice president with Old Point National Bank, Witt put together a group of fundraising volunteers to make phone calls and knock on doors. As donations began to come in, Witt felt like a coach, pushing his team to victory. “Everything is possible if you put a good plan together and get a good team together to make it happen,” he says.  In less than six months, the campaign had raised $1.7 million. That’s when an anonymous donor stepped forward and pledged $6 million, provided the museum raised $3 million by the end of 2009.

The volunteers’ persistence paid off. More than 700 donors came to the rescue. Schoolchildren emptied their piggy banks, while corporations such as Norfolk Southern kicked in $30,000. The museum was able to pay off its bank loans before the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31.

Witt and his team are especially grateful for the sacrifices people made to donate money to the museum. “We’re all digging deeper these days,” he notes. “When people are making sacrifices to save an institution like the living museum, that really is a heartfelt gift.” 

The Virginia Living Museum opened in 1966 as the Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium. After an expansion, it was renamed the Peninsula Nature and Science Center in 1976.  Then in 1987 came its transformation into the nation’s first living museum east of the Mississippi River. As a living museum, all exhibits are alive and depict the area’s natural heritage.

The museum opened a new $22.6 million facility in 2004. The state had given planning money for the building and indicated that it would provide one-third of the construction cost, with the rest coming from the city of Newport News and private donations.  State funding failed to materialize, however, so the museum decided to finance the construction with two 20-year bank notes. They were the source of its debt crisis.

The museum still does not receive state funding. Its only public funding comes from the city of Newport News, with the remaining 87 percent of its revenue flowing from private sources. The museum charges $17 for adult admission and $13 for children.

For his efforts with the Opportunity Fund Campaign, Witt received the 2010 Ann Brownson Award for service from the Virginia Association of Museums.

He believes that donors stepped up because they realized the value of the museum to the community. “Things that support our community define the character of a community long term,” he says. “That’s what makes quality of life. You can’t let that slip”. 

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