The quiet Sibley Historic Site is getting a new life as a local group prepares to take over efforts to showcase some of Minnesota’s oldest buildings, including the state’s first governor’s residence.
“I think people forget about Sibley House,” said Sally Anderson, vice president of the Dakota County Historical Society board of trustees. “It’s a real gem.”
The society will become the site manager next summer, a move aimed at energizing a facility that often sits closed near the banks of the Minnesota River. The switch comes as it is hiring a new director, who must come up with a plan to boost revenue and stem a series of budget shortfalls.
It will be the 12th site for which the Minnesota Historical Society has handed over management to a local organization. Such partnerships intensified in the early 2000s, when budget crunches forced the society to consider closing spots like Fort Ridgely near Fairfax, said Ben Leonard, manager of community outreach and partnerships.
The trend has continued — but for a different reason, he said. “We’ve began to look at partnerships more as a really good way to manage certain sites in the network effectively,” said Leonard, adding that other agencies often have the local expertise, connections and enthusiasm to run the properties best.
For the Dakota County Historical Society (DCHS), the offer to run Sibley Historic Site in Mendota came at an ideal time. In its search for a director, DCHS outlined ambitious goals, including leading them to “the next level of regional relevance and prominence.”
The next leader will have to overcome a couple of years of unstable management and limited finances. The society fired its executive director, Lynn Gruber, in February, said Tom Achartz, president of its board of trustees. And the DCHS has repeatedly spent more than it brought in, according to recent tax filings.
The nonprofit averaged $265,866 a year in revenue between 2011 and 2013, and overspent its budget each of those years. In 2013, the organization spent $59,019 more than it made, the largest shortfall of the three years.
DCHS members say they hope to bring in more donations once they have control of the site, which was once a center of the fur trade and home of Gov. Henry Hastings Sibley.
Officials will add more signage and plan more programs and events when the DCHS takes over operations next year. Staff members will also hold open hours every weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The Minnesota Historical Society will still own and maintain the site, as it does at the other contracted out properties. It will give the DCHS funding for staff and some programming costs, Leonard said.
“We’re actually spending more at the site than we were when the Minnesota Historical Society was managing it,” said Leonard, including for increased maintenance costs. “Sometimes our partners are able to deliver more services for similar dollars.”
Struggling to stand out
Historical museums can get a reputation as “a dusty old place for cleaning out grandma’s attic,” said Cedar Imboden Phillips, director of the Hennepin History Museum.
Groups running museums and historic sites need to find ways to stay relevant and carve a place for themselves, Phillips said.
For 76 years, the Dakota County Historical Society has found its niche telling the county’s stories. At the center of that is the Lawshe Memorial Museum in South St. Paul, which is filled with pictures, maps and artifacts depicting the life of the Dakota people, the stockyards’ heyday and much more.
The society’s revenue hasn’t been great, but it has survived, Achartz said. Now, though, he wants to “move beyond just stability.”
Much of that responsibility will fall on the next director.
Turnover in leadership may have affected a few donors — but not most, said Chad Roberts, Gruber’s predecessor who left for the Ramsey County Historical Society. “It’s well-positioned to do more,” Roberts said.
Officials said they hope it will draw more young families and school groups and allow the society to connect with people in a different area of the county.
Leonard said he saw the benefits of that at his last job as head of the Nicollet County Historical Society, which partnered with the Minnesota Historical Society to run several historic sites.
“These are sites that are elevated in the public’s view,” Leonard said. “There’s power in being part of the Minnesota state historic site network.”