One year later: Freedom Center merger

One year later: Freedom Center merger

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - It has been nearly a year since the Cincinnati Museum Center and National Underground Railroad Freedom Center merged in hopes of stabilizing the financially strained Freedom Center.

"It was a real threat that our doors could close," NURFC president Kim Robinson told FOX19.

The Museum Center merge is being hailed as the lifeline that has pulled the Freedom Center to firmer financial footing.

"I and many others had a very serious concern we could not stay open based on our business model as it existed pre-merger," recalled Luke Blocher, NURFC Dir. of National Strategic Initiatives.

Blocher's job is to share the center's message worldwide.

"The history we tell in this museum is an integral part of who we are as a country and if we lose that we lose a real part of who we are as a nation," emphasized blocher.

Blocher just helped complete a "Journey to Freedom" video with the help of Google for the U.S. State Department. The 35 minute documentary has since been shown at 50 US embassies and is linked to the Journey to Freedom website which contains educational resources.

Blocher argues the merger has given him a megaphone to continue to spread the word.

"Now I'm very confident in where we are going as an institution and it's allowed me in my work to dream much bigger about what we can do and to start to deliver on those things as well," he said.

"I think the merger was critical to happen," Chief Growth Officer Mabe Rodriguez told FOX19. "I think the knowhow and the experience of the people at the Museum Center has been really a blessing."

Rodriguez is on loan from Proctor and Gamble. She has worked on five mergers in her 22 years with P&G and she is just one of the many professionals shared by local companies to help make the merger a success.

"I think what makes those corporate doors open so easily is everyone wants to see this space succeed. When this building was built everyone had high expectations. Somehow it went down," she recognized.

Rodriguez has helped identify four was to increase revenues for the center to get it back on the right track.

1. Refresh exhibits

Museum officials are working with an external company on concept development and will need to raise capital once the concepts are identified.

2. Create a business center

Museum staff will be moved to the fourth floor and the fifth floor will be turned in to a business center including conference space. Companies will purchase space on a timeshare with a three year commitment. Mabe says several companies have already signed up and more than 25 percent of the capitol for the anticipated $2 million dollar project has been raised to build the center which is expected to take eight months to a year to complete. The City of Cincinnati has committed to providing a capital grant of $300,000 to assist with the build.

3. Lease café space for a fine dining restaurant

Mabe says two Deloitte execs helped identify 89 ideas which were narrowed down to three and ultimately the fine dining option was chosen. The museum is still in the process of finding a company to lease the space.

4. Maximize catering opportunities.

As a way to leverage the full potential of the space, museum officials have increased catering by %100 percent since the merger and chosen new chef to take the helm.

"It's a fantastic location we just need to maximize it," Rodriguez said.

The Freedom Center receives no funding from Hamilton County and no operating support from the City.

Museum officials say multiple local companies like Deloitte, Nielsen, Dunnhumby and Procter and Gamble have volunteered intellectual capital and shared their employees to maximize savings and help create a long term sustainable plan for the museum's future.

According to Downtown Cincinnati Inc's 2012 State of Downtown Report the Freedom Center is the third most visited Museum in the City with 112,695 visitors in 2012 behind the Museum Center with 1.3 million visitors and Art Museum. Attendance peaked in 2005 at over 204,000 visitors and plateaued at around 113,000 since 2009.

While donations decreased slightly between the pre-merger fiscal year 2012 and post-merger 2013, the Freedom Center's endowment has more than doubled. Prior to July of 2012 the endowment sat at $2,899,999 and currently totals $6,009,700 with a remaining three million available through a matching grant.

A key understanding that came from the merger was that the Freedom Center's business model is very different from the Museum Center. Attendance revenues alone cannot make up the bulk of its budget, so teams have had to come up with creative ways to save the Cincinnati treasure.

The merger savings total over $1 million with projections anticipating a total savings of $1.3 million. Those savings have been attained through multiple approaches:

  1. Shared services: IT, HR, marketing and security
  2. Non personnel expenses like travel and legal training: $90,000
  3. Operational savings: 300,000.
  4. Position Eliminations: 18

While seven people lost jobs in the merger, six positions were transferred and five were eliminated through attrition.

"We did have to make some cuts as a part of our reduction in cost," Robinson said. "We treated the employees extremely well. They landed on their feet, but it was an important step we had to take to preserve the institution."

Douglass McDonald, CEO of the two centers says long term success will require a broader base of financial support both locally and from donors far and wide.

"No organization is safe from any possibility in the future, ever," he said. "The Freedom Center and Museum Center share that. We will be successful as we work every day, as we are relentless in telling our story and as we engage our public to support the important work we do."

"We don't want to beg for more. We want to earn more," Robinson said.

Both McDonald and Robinson recognize while they have made great strides, there is still much more to be done.

"I wouldn't want anybody to conclude that we don't have work to do," Robinson said.  "We still have a lot of work to do but the most important variables are taken care of. I believe we are financially viable, we are doing well."

Kim Robinson is retiring at the end of the month. A national search firm has narrowed down a group of finalists. They expect to announce the next president of the NURFC later this summer.

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