Westville considers moving to Columbus

After more than a decade of declining visitation, Historic Westville, an 87-acre village that interprets life in 1850s Georgia, is seriously exploring a move that could land it in Columbus.

Tripp Blankenship, chairman of Westville's executive board, while calling a decision "premature," said the hope is to have a new location chosen within six months.

"We haven't reached any sort of terms with any party yet. We're still trying to gather a lot of information and that's taken a lot of time," he said of the possible relocation of Historic Westville from Lumpkin, Ga., in Stewart County, about 40 miles south of Columbus.

The prime location being considered for a site in Columbus is about 80 acres in the Oxbow Meadows area, off South Lumpkin Road and not far from the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center.

Westville board members also have talked with Stone Mountain Park, an attraction on the east side of Atlanta that centers around a 1,686-foot quartz monzonite dome rock. It also uses history as a draw, complete with an open-air living history museum with structures similar to those at Westville.

Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson on Friday said Westville's leadership has reached out to the city about its possible plans, which she knows could include Columbus or Stone Mountain. Foremost, she said, is keeping the attraction at least in the vicinity of Columbus.

"We're interested in the possibility of Westville possibly coming to Columbus, but certainly not leaving the region," she said. "We're willing to talk with them about what those possibilities might be. We want to keep it in the region. We think it's a good asset for the larger region, and we'd hate to see something like that go to Atlanta."

Blankenship and board member Andy Moye said discussions also have taken place with Phenix City officials, but those did not yield a suitable place for a move.

Historic Westville, which has more than 30 period structures and a staff of 10 people, has been open since 1968. It's essentially a living history museum that blends tours with special events to give visitors a feel for daily life in the 1850s and beyond. Events, which rely on volunteers, range from mock Creek Indian attacks to Civil War re-enactments.

Attendance, however, has been on a steady decline since peaking at 49,452 visitors in the 1988-89 fiscal year. The erosion was minor over the next decade, slipping to about 46,000 in 1997-98, but has dropped about 5 percent or more annually since. Last year, the attraction drew a mere 13,142 people.

"We're trying to meet our mission, and it's just very challenging under our current situation," said Leo Goodsell, executive director of Westville.

Several factors contributed to the slide, Goodsell said. Certainly, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks hurt Westville, as it did most tourism attractions, as stunned Americans pulled back on travel.

Then, with the No Child Left Behind law taking effect in 2002 -- combined with surging gas prices -- school visitations began to disappear as field trips dried up. That segment once accounted for more than 40 percent of Westville's yearly attendance. The Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, along with an economy yet to fully heal, has been another blow.

"No Child Left Behind caused schools in the whole country to really reconsider what they're doing and how they were going to meet the new federal standards," Goodsell said. "A lot of schools just pulled back on field trips as one thing that they did because they had to look inward and focus on how do we get these students to graduate, how do we meet these standards. So the focus was internally and less outwardly toward field trips."

The sagging attendance and financial disruption naturally put Historic Westville on its heels and prompted the current yearning by its board of trustees to search for better pastures, a move some have been wanting for years.

"It's to the point where you have to ask yourself, if we've got a nice museum, but nobody sees it, what can we do about that? That's exactly what's driving the whole process," said Moye, who laid out a few more details of what has taken place so far.

While financial costs have yet to be nailed down, Moye threw out projections that it could take about $3 million and at least a year to move all of the buildings from Westville to Columbus. It could take roughly $7 million more to set up an endowment that would put funds in place to operate the living history museum.

"I think that's the barrier to taking it to the trustees to make a decision," Moye said of a relocation, which obviously would need some sort of financial infusion through a fund-raising effort.

There's also the question of whether or not moving Historic Westville to Columbus would, in fact, turn its fortunes around. Moye said he's studied visitation at living history musuems and found some that did not do well near large cities, and others that have flourished in rural areas.

A good example of a large-city attraction that has taken it on the chin in terms of attendance is the Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center in Williamsburg, Va. In 2007, the Colonial history mecca celebrated the 400th anniversary of the founding of America's first English colony, with 1 million visitors flocking there.

That was just as the U.S. banking crisis and housing market meltdown were unfolding, causing a recession from which Jamestown-Yorktown have yet to recover. Paid attendance in 2012 was down again to just over 560,000, according to the attraction's website, with fluctuating gas prices, dwindling school budgets and consumer uncertainty cited as factors.

Still, former Westville board chairman and Columbus-area historian Billy Winn said now is the time for Historic Westville to make a change for its own continued health.

"I've always been in favor of moving Westville to a place where there are more people," he said, explaining that Lumpkin and Stewart County have his sympathy should a relocation of the museum occur. The community bought many of the structures in the 1960s, moving them from Jonesboro, Ga., south of Atlanta, to the current village site. Residents have chipped in to make repairs and help financially at times, he said.

"They've done a great job," Winn said. "Still, you could see the handwriting on the wall, that Westville needed to be somewhere where it had an opportunity to get some walk-through or drive-by traffic. And Columbus being the closest relatively large city certainly offers that opportunity."

The lack of repeat visitors in an economy that is still straining people's pocketbooks is a bottom-line indicator that something needs to be done, he added.

"It's a big decision for most people given the economy to get the children in the car and drive all of the way down to Lumpkin, and pay six bucks apiece to get in," Winn said. "That takes a real commitment, and they don't do that often. So you don't get many repeats like we always wanted to build up."

He and others, including Peter Bowden, president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Visitors and Convention Bureau, believe Historic Westville would be a great fit for the city. They point to the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center, the Columbus Museum and the National Civil War Naval Museum at Port Columbus as other local history venues that would complement it.

Those and the city's urban appeal with restaurants, hotels, shopping and even the developing whitewater course on the Chattahoochee River -- on top of the city's RiverWalk -- make Historic Westville a natural for the city, they said.

"Part of the CVB's mission is to extend the stay of the visitor, and that gives them one more reason to come early or to come back," said Bowden, who hasn't crunched any numbers but believes Historic Westville could offer a "pretty strong" boost in the city's visitation, which was 1.3 million in the last fiscal year.

"Historical and cultural experiences are what the traveler, or visitor, is looking for," he said. "Something as dynamic as what Westville could bring to Columbus would be awesome."

--Staff writer Mike Owen contributed to this story.

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