Colonial Williamsburg considers fencing off Historic Area to raise revenue

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The Governor's Palace in Colonial Williamsburg. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
The Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

Strolls down Duke of Gloucester Street may come with an admission fee if the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation follows through with an idea to build a fence — informally presented to members of City Council earlier this month.

The Foundation says it’s losing as much $2.3 million annually in profits because tens of thousands of visitors have unpaid access to the Historic Area. Members of the Foundation believe building a fence around the compound to limit public access will improve their finances, according to a Foundation memo WYDaily obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

City officials say, however, the 301- acre tourist haven, which straddles Duke of Gloucester Street is a public right of way, and the Foundation cannot block access to pedestrian traffic.

The issue of cordoning off public traffic– which dates back to the 1960s — represents a protracted debate between the city and its namesake brand.

With no clear resolution in sight, Foundation members have collected data to justify limiting public access to the historic compound. Between late February and early March, Foundation representatives presented some of those findings to City Council members for consideration, according to Lee Ann Hartmann, spokeswoman for the City of Williamsburg.

In the Jan.26 memo shared with Council members, Skip Ferebee, the Foundation’s executive director of business development, wrote: “the absence of a fence (managed access) around the Historic Area in Colonial Williamsburg is potentially costing the Foundation between $1.4 and $2.3 million per year.”

“My top priority is protecting the treasure that is Colonial Williamsburg,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President Mitchell Reiss said in a statement to WYDaily. “The memo we provided to the city is a more detailed update regarding the challenges Colonial Williamsburg faces as a result of our open campus.”

The memo further states that a 2013 in-house survey revealed as many as 70,500 unticketed leisure guests “enjoyed the assets” of Colonial Williamsburg without any financial contribution at all.

The projected loss of revenue assumes most unticketed visitors do not spend money on food purchases, retail transactions, or miscellaneous programming, the memo said.

Also in its findings, Colonial Williamsburg said it has found a 28-year-correlation between ticket sales and increased secondary revenue from food and retail purchases.

Hartmann says the city is  aware of the foundation’s concerns, but maintains their stance on the matter.

“All streets in the historic area are public. The retail shops and businesses that comprise Merchants Square are part of Colonial Williamsburg but the ‘square’ is located on Duke of Gloucester Street. The street belongs to the city, ” Hartmann said.

Hartmann added, “Although we have not heard anything about a ‘wall,’ the concept of limited access to the historic area is not new. It was proposed back in the 1960’s when [ Duke of Gloucester] DoG Street was originally closed to vehicular traffic.”

In 2013,  the Foundation presented the City Council with another plan: The Revolutionary City program. It requested restricted public access for a limited period each day and was granted approval for a 60-day trial, which took place during the summer.  

During the trial, the Foundation committed to taking a detailed survey of people on the street – both ticket holders and non-ticket holders – to help gauge the program’s success. 

Following the trial, the Foundation proposed an expansion of Revolutionary City asking it be extended for another 15 months to gather more data. City Council denied the request.

Colonial Williamsburg began as a restoration project of Virginia’s 18th century capital in 1926 when John D. Rockefeller. Jr. and Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, rector of Bruton Parish Church, teamed up to preserve the historic city. Rockefeller funded the restoration of 80 of the historic structures.

Since 1932, more than 100 million visitors have enjoyed the Colonial Williamsburg experience, according to its website.

“We feel it’s important to be open and transparent about the significant revenue impact attributable to un-ticketed guests,” Reiss said. “As we work cooperatively with the community to strengthen Colonial Williamsburg, it’s important for all those who care about it to know the facts as we think through plans for the future.”