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Changes loom for Delta museum

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Jim Wetzel

Changes are on the horizon for the Delta County Historical Society and Museum. Director and curator Jim Wetzel has given the board of directors his notice that he will retire in April 2018, after 20 years on the job. Coupled with declining financial resources, his retirement has caused the board of trustees to look into new ways of operating the museum.

"If the trends continue, we'll be out of money in 10 years," said Keith Lucy, the chair of the trustees. "We are just looking down the road. We have funding until then, but it's important to plan for the long term."

When Wetzel was hired, the museum and historical society was able to operate off the interest of an endowment account. The interest paid his salary for the past 12 years or so, but in more recent years, the board has been drawing off the principle of the fund. "We don't want to do that," Wetzel said.

Wetzel's retirement primes the board to move to an all-volunteer model of running the museum and historical society, instead of seeking a new paid staff person. It's not a new concept: all of the other three museums in Delta County also run off of volunteer support.

It's a little premature to know if the hours or days of operation will be changed at this point, Wetzel said, but he did say that the museum is in no danger of closing. "That's not going to happen," he promised.

"Everything is stable. The museum is not going away," Lucy reiterated. What the transition does do is allow the trustees to refocus their efforts to ensure a long term solution. "We can do more fundraising or consider business sponsors," he said. "The funding is a concern, but we also look at it as an opportunity for more people to get involved in their museum."

The board of trustees owns everything within the museum, except for the dinosaur exhibit, and if the museum were to shut down, all the materials would have to be donated to other museums. The board doesn't want to see that happen.

Thankfully, museum operations are pretty minimal. The City of Delta owns and maintains the building on 2nd and Meeker streets that houses the museum, and the city also covers the museum's utility bills, a relationship that has been ongoing since 1990. "We have good support from the City of Delta," Wetzel said.

Additionally, the museum has about 130 members, who pay anywhere from the $7.50 annual membership fee to the $250 lifetime membership fee. And of course there are daily admission fees, but that adds up to a very small amount, given that members and all kids high school age and younger get into the museum for free, as do members of either the Paonia or Hotchkiss/Crawford historical societies (members of the Surface Creek Valley Historical Society get in for half price). The museum, very occasionally, will also receive endowments.

Plus, there aren't a ton of expenses -- archival-quality paper and other archival supplies are the largest expense overall, but even those expenses are minimal, Wetzel said.

So the board can operate for a while with not dipping into the endowment fund if enough volunteers step up to ensure Delta's museum remains open. "There is always something to do here," Wetzel said. The board is looking for project-oriented volunteers who can help accept, inventory and place new collections or items, research or assist patrons with research projects, or take groups on tours of the collection. One of the biggest needs is for digital database maintenance. "We want people to take on projects based on their interests," Wetzel said. "That's the way I see us operating in the future." He did say that the board is still kicking around ideas on how to best operate, however, and nothing is set in stone yet.

In the meantime, the board is planning two fundraisers for later this fall. In September, a spaghetti dinner will be held. On Oct. 14, they plan to show a 40-minute film produced by Wetzel on the history of the Egyptian Theater. The film will be shown at the theater, as well as a film he produced two years ago called "Rediscovering Delta History: The Movie." In addition, the opening night of the theater will be reenacted with live stage plays, there will be a drawing for a cash prize, and a 10-card set of postcards featuring historical photos of the theater will be sold.

And though he is looking forward to retirement and the lure of free time, Wetzel said he will not drop out of sight - he still plans to volunteer at the museum in whatever capacity is needed, though on a much less intensive level. "I still plan to be involved on some level," he said.

"Jim has been a tremendous asset to the museum," Lucy said. "He's been the anchor. The museum is what it is today because of the efforts that Jim has exerted to make it a really worthwhile museum. We greatly appreciate that, and we're going to miss him."

For now, Wetzel remains on staff, collecting, cataloging, researching, teaching and writing, among his many other contributions for the historical society. But both he and the trustees are actively seeking volunteers who are interested in maintaining local history. If you are interested in helping at the museum or with events and fundraising, please call the museum at 874-8721 or drop by and speak to Wetzel. "If you are interested in helping in any way, we'll find a place for you to get plugged in," Lucy said.

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