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State grant money helps historical groups make ends meet

| Wednesday, June 18, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Emily Harger | Tribune-Review
Ron Baraff, Director of Museums and Archives of Rivers of Steel, has been dedicated to the preservation of the post-industrial life of the Carrie Furnace, one of the last standing blast furnaces located in Swissvale that is open for tours and event for the public 'If you tear them all down, you're taking away our sense of place, our sense of self, and our history,' said Baraff, 'and you're not giving us the ability to tell the story of the 19th century.'

The Pennsylvania Trolley Museum enjoyed record high attendance the past two years, with more than 30,000 visitors making their way through the doors for a glimpse into another era.

Yet such steady ticket sales cover just a third of the museum's operating budget.

“The tickets we sell for visitors to come don't cover all the expenses,” Executive Director Scott Becker said.

That's where donations come in, along with state funding when it is available.

The Trolley Museum in Chartiers, Washington County, was one of 130 organizations statewide, and among dozens in Western Pennsylvania, to receive a grant recently from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission as part of a one-time $2 million support program.

In a post-recession era, museums have experienced dropoffs in private donations and public grants, experts say. Becker said although his organization cuts costs with a volunteer staff equivalent to 15 paid full-time employees, the museum's grant of $8,890 will help offset its day-to-day bills.

“We have expenses many museums don't have,” said Becker, noting the fully operational trolley line that visitors ride. “That helps to cover our overhead.”

Other allocations went to attractions such as Fallingwater in Fayette County, the Carnegie Institute, the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh and the Frick Art and Historical Center. Each received $65,000 grants. Historical societies in Butler, Westmoreland and Greene counties received $4,000 each.

Commission spokesman Howard Pollman said organizations can use the grant money for nearly any purpose. Often, that includes salaries, wages, benefits, insurance or equipment purchases.

“It's a lot easier to fundraise for an exhibit or program or something special,” he said. “To fundraise to help defray some of the day-to-day costs is more difficult.”

With the state nearing a projected deficit of $1.2 billion in next year's budget, Pollman said, there's no certainty of the grant's continuance. About 10 years ago, when the state's economy was in better shape, Pollman recalled about $15 million worth of grant allocations.

“We're really happy to have this money this year,” he said. “Moving forward, we don't know. There's a lot of things at play in this year's budget.”

Augie Carlino, president and chief executive officer at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, said that organization's grant of about $19,000 is a positive step after state support was “zeroed out” in years past.

Rivers of Steel works in the eight-county region to develop industrial sites in ways that commemorate and honor the area's industrial history. Leaders maintain and host tours of the Carrie Blast Furnaces in Rankin.

“We use it for outreach in the community,” he said of the money. “It goes towards helping pay staff, some interns and others that will be doing technical assistance projects.”

At the Beaver County Historical Research and Landmark Foundation, a $4,000 grant fills gaps in the $32,000 operating budget, said Executive Director Brenda Applegate.

The money helps cover day-to-day operating expenses such as phone and Internet bills, and will help offset the purchase of boxes for quilt storage for an ongoing project.

In addition to running thematic youth and adult programs, much of the foundation's work includes fielding questions and tracking down answers on landmarks, artifacts, preservation or area history. Applegate works closely with other organizations, especially as they've had to cut resources, she said.

“With our coalition of historical groups, we're trying to work closely together,” she said.

Becker, at the trolley museum, said Western Pennsylvania has 85 notable museum and historical sites, a mainstay of the state's tourism industry. Museum guests sometimes come from out of town — and the museum gives them a unique experience, he said.

“When you go to visit an area, lots of things are similar,” Becker said. “A lot of the restaurants are national chains. A lot of the hotels are national chains. It's places like museums that tend to make that area unique.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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