WHEATON – After more than three decades, a Wheaton institution is hoping this year proves better than the last.
The Wheaton Center for History was evicted from its downtown Front Street location in fall 2014 after getting behind in rent.
The nonprofit has more than 47,000 items, said President Alberta Adamson, and now must hope the community that donated those pieces cares enough to keep the center afloat.
"People in the community wanted a museum to preserve their history," she said. "We did it for the community – we've always done it for the community."
Now, many of those items are in storage, at the center's remaining building at 606 N. Main St. or in the homes of donors.
Center members say the financial troubles began in 2009, when the city cut its about $225,000 annual contribution to the nonprofit.
"I don't think we were expecting a total cutoff, maybe a cut back ... but they whacked it off completely," said center Vice Chairwoman Laurie Warfel. "And I don't think there's anybody on that council who would support bringing us back."
City Manager Don Rose said the cut was mainly a financial decision and part of about $3 million in expenditures the city eliminated that year.
Rose said the city also called for the center to evaluate other funding sources to stabilize its revenue stream – something it asked of Wheaton's municipal band, library and more recently the downtown association. The center never presented a business plan reflecting that request, he said.
"They always had a large vision but were not attuned to the reality of the money available from the city and they certainly weren't successful in getting a large following or outside sources," he said.
Adamson said the city's contribution was about 30 to 40 percent of the center's annual budget at the time, but that it provided a degree of credibility. Once that backing was gone, grants began to dry up and major donors pulled out.
Mayor Mike Gresk said he and other council members wanted to see more audited financial documents from the center, but Adamson said the nonprofit presented monthly reports, an outside annual audit and other documentation.
Gresk didn't rule out a future partnership, saying he knew Wheaton's park district, library and historic commission offered to house parts of the center's collection.
"In 12, 15, 20 years from now, nobody is going to remember this in terms of personalities – they are are going to say, 'Where is the history?'" he said. "I see it as a huge puzzle with lots of moving parts, and quite honestly, the ball is in the court of the Center for History."
Adamson said she hopes the center's longstanding reputation for quality will help it stay afloat as it looks for a new space.
She said the center plans to overhaul its Board of Directors with new members to rebuild the organization's infrastructure. Historical interpreters and those versed in social media are high on the priority list as well. The center is also seeking partners to donate space and items for fundraisers.
But the nonprofit can't afford to fix the roof on its Main Street building. Adamson is the only full-time staff member and hasn't been paid in years. So far, the hunt for a Wheaton location has been fruitless – Adamson said she worries the organization will have to take its collection elsewhere, despite its commitment to Wheaton.
"We need to get people interested and enthusiastic in our community again," she said. "These archives belong in Wheaton."
Adamson also said she doesn't believe the city will return its support to the center in the near future.
"But will the community support us? I don't know," she said.
For more information on the Wheaton Center for History, visit wheaton.lib.il.us/whc.
Relationships of area communities and their historical societies and museums
The historical society is a separate and independent legal entity from the village, with no direct village funding, according to Village Manager Joseph Breinig. The village maintains a historic farmhouse and lets the society use village property for fundraisers.
The historical society has purchased property and deeded it to the village and the village takes care of property maintenance and other in-kind services, worth about $20,000 per year, according to Village Manager Mark Franz.
Naper Settlement is part of the municipal government with a total of $3.86 million in appropriations, according to the 2015 Naperville city budget. Its building is located across the street from the city's municipal center and the assistant city manager acts as liason to the settlement.
The historical society is a $140,000 line item in the village's $42 million general fund, but it is required to do its own fundraising and present to the village Tourism and Promotions Committee, according to Village Manager Scott Niehaus. The village also provided a loan to the society to construct a building.
The historical museum received a $1 million budget for 2015 from the city, but the city removed $125,000 from the budget in November with the intention to restore it if the museum completes its strategic plan by July 1, 2015.
The West Chicago City Museum is a full department of the city of West Chicago and receives more than $120,000 annually, according to a report by Elmhurst city staff. The West Chicago Historical Society is unaffiliated with the city and operates the Kruse House Museum.