Tuesday, October 4, 2022

As Colonial Williamsburg searches for a new CEO, here’s how the last 5 years went with Mitchell Reiss

Colonial Williamsburg announced on Tuesday that it would raise its admission prices for the first time in four years. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Colonial Williamsburg announced on Tuesday that it would raise its admission prices for the first time in four years. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

Five years ago, Mitchell B. Reiss arrived in Williamsburg with a tall task ahead of him.

The foundation — nearly 90 years old at the time and one of the main draws for tourism in the Historic Triangle — was hemorrhaging money and losing visitors, relying on substantial withdrawals from its endowment each year to make ends meet.

Reiss, coming in as former president of Washington College in Maryland, needed to rehab the history-focused foundation and right-side the budget that managed more than $100 million in revenue each year.

The idea is we need to stabilize the endowment, so the endowment supports the Historic Area, education and the museum,” Reiss said in an exclusive interview with WYDaily in June 2017. “It’s why people care and it’s why they come. It’s why they support us.”

Financially, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has seen both improvements and some declining figures under Reiss, who will leave at the end of this month.

Overall, Reiss helped cut down how much Colonial Williamsburg dipped into its endowment each year — but didn’t bring it down to the level at which a healthy nonprofit would take.

When Reiss came on board in 2014, Colonial Williamsburg was drawing about 12 percent of the fund. The withdrawal was more than double what a stable nonprofit would pull, he said in 2018.

Under Reiss, the foundation cut its withdrawal from the endowment to about 8 percent in 2017 and 2018 — “2018 brought welcome, important validation of hard but necessary decisions we made the previous year to restructure the Foundation and economize,” Reiss wrote. “After decades of draining money from the nonprofit Foundation, the Colonial Williamsburg Company (which includes Hospitality and Real Estate) was net cash-flow positive for the first time in its history.”

However, admissions revenue still took a nearly $1 million hit. Tax documents for 2017 show the foundation saw a nearly $900,000 drop in revenue from admissions alone compared to the previous year. Admission numbers themselves increased, however.

In June 2017, Reiss also made headlines with the “fundamental restructuring” of Colonial Williamsburg, in which 333 employees were either laid off or outsourced to outside companies. 

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President and CEO Mitchell Reiss spoke in the Tide Radio studios about controlled access to the historic area, taxes, and the importance of history. (WYDaily/File photo)
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President and CEO Mitchell Reiss spoke in the Tide Radio studios about controlled access to the historic area, taxes, and the importance of history. (WYDaily/File photo)

Despite the cuts, the CEO himself received $100,000 pay bonuses in 2016 and 2017, bringing his total compensation package up to $817,214 in 2017.

Colonial Williamsburg spokesman Joseph Straw responded to an email request from WYDaily asking for a recap of Reiss’s accomplishments with a list.

Here are some of the accomplishments listed by Straw, stating — verbatim — Reiss has:

  • Generated profitable commercial operations for the first time
  • Reversed a five-year decline in visitation through improved marketing efforts
  • Achieved four straight years of record fundraising
  • Made unprecedented investments in staff, including professional development training, new bonuses and recognition awards
  • Developed its first strategic plan in 30 years
  • Completed fundraising for completely donor-funded, $41.7 million expansion of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg

Board of Trustees Chairman Thurston Moore did not return a direct email request for the Board of Trustees’ perspective on Reiss’s performance, but a prepared statement from him was included in a June 2019 news release forwarded Thursday by Straw.

“Mitchell has worked successfully to help Colonial Williamsburg navigate unprecedented cultural and technological shifts, building a record of solid accomplishment under his tenure,” Moore said. “On behalf of the Board of Trustees and all of Colonial Williamsburg, I want to thank Mitchell and Elisabeth Reiss for their dedication and service, and for helping to build a stronger Foundation.”

Projects

During Reiss’s time, some new initiatives and programs also came on-board but fizzled out, such as the Briards Liberty and Justice. 

The Briards, which were licensed therapy dogs, were bought from a breeder and used to improve the visitor experience. At the time, Reiss said the foundation mascots were inspired by the interactions guests had every day with dogs on Duke of Gloucester Street. The Briards had their own interpreter-handlers.

Liberty and Justice retired at the end of 2018 because of multiple factors, including changes in services offered by the dogs’ longtime care and boarding provider. 

RELATED STORY: Liberty and Justice are officially retired and returned to their breeder

Liberty and Justice retired at the end of 2018 due to multiple factors. (WYDaily/Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg)
Liberty and Justice retired at the end of 2018 due to multiple factors. (WYDaily/Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg)

Reiss’s final contracted year with Colonial Williamsburg was also marked by a controversial project: Goodwin Square.

Colonial Williamsburg proposed removing 40 of 48 parking spots in the P3 parking lot in Merchants Square in favor of a green space and pedestrian plaza. The plaza was proposed to have a splash pad, temporary video wall and public seating.

The project was met with hesitation from a segment of the older residential and business population, although some residents voiced support for the idea.

On Wednesday, Vice President of Real Estate for the foundation, Jeff Duncan, wrote a letter to the city requesting the application be withdrawn — for the second time since Goodwin Square was first proposed in fall 2018.

Duncan cited the transition in leadership following Reiss’s departure as the reason for withdrawing the application for grant funding and special use permits.

Some initiatives under Reiss, including highlighting more African American history, came through in various exhibits and projects.

In the news

In an interview with Virginia Business this year, Reiss pointed out his employment record: He rarely stays longer than four years at any particular job.

It’s a fact that has not gone unnoticed by at least one community where Reiss previously worked.

In July 2014, the Chestertown Spy in Chestertown, Maryland wrote an editorial about Reiss’s departure after a four-year tenure as the president of Washington College.

Titled “Mitchell, We Hardly Knew Ye,” the editorial detailed Reiss’s four years, suggesting, at times, he seemed more like a management consultant than a college president.

Reiss arrived at Washington College with a goal to change the school’s culture, which came with a slew of retirements, firings and reorganization of the college’s senior management team.

“The difference in the Reiss example was his remarkable decision to immediately depart after just building his new management team,” the Spy wrote. “… Apparently this new standard was perfectly acceptable to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation board of directors, who have hired Dr. Reiss as the foundation’s new CEO. But for many in the greater Chestertown community, there remains a moral question of when should a leader leave?  Or, more specifically, for Washington College, ‘what would George Washington have done?’”

Search for a new CEO

Colonial Williamsburg has previously declined to respond to WYDaily/s inquiries about the search for Reiss’s replacement.

Here’s what remains unknown about his departure:

  • Who initiated the nonrenewal of Reiss’s contract
  • How often Reiss’s contract is renewed
  • Whether the separation includes a severance, separation or retirement package
  • When Reiss will be required to move out of his Colonial Williamsburg home, which is provided as part of his employment
  • Whether Reiss indicated he has a new job lined up or is retiring

Regardless of who will take Reiss’s place, the CEO confirmed in his 2018 report narrative there is more work left.

“It is encouraging to be able to report that, operationally, this Foundation is stronger than it has been in decades,” he wrote. “There is work left to be done, certainly, to ensure its financial future. But it is gratifying to be able to write that we are back on a sure path.”

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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