Who will operate the historic museum exhibits at Fort Conde? Where will the city of Mobile’s Visitors Center be located? Who will manage Living History exhibits at Fort Conde? Will a third-party vendor be allowed to lease the 40-year-old reconstructed historic fort?
These are some of the questions we hoped the mayor’s administration would address at the Mobile Museum of History’s annual volunteer party on Nov. 21. However, no clear statement concerning Fort Conde’s long-term future was made by museum director Mr. Ron Jamro.
Tourism Ambassador volunteers have served Mobile for almost two decades, and the present uncertainty is affecting morale and continued volunteer service. Four Mobile City Council members have denied any knowledge of a permanent solution to the Visitors Center conundrum, stating that a permanent operating plan has not yet been determined.
Presently, the History Museum of Mobile is operating the Visitors Center at Fort Conde under the management of the Educational Curator’s office. A history museum admissions receptionist presently staffs the City Visitors Center with the remnants of Visit Mobile’s former Tourism Ambassador volunteers giving her support.
In short, there has been great uncertainty since the FY 2017 budget eliminated the $200,000 allocation for the Fort Conde Visitors Center. With three days’ notice, Visit Mobile was told to vacate the building as they would no longer be responsible for managing the Visitors Center.
Former Visit Mobile CEO Al Hutchinson told volunteers that he learned of the management change at the Sept. 27 City Council meeting which defunded the Visitors Center. At that meeting, Councilwoman Bess Rich questioned the effects of removing the $200,000 allocation. City Finance Director Paul Wesch stated that the administration would take over the management of the Visitors Center.
Fifty days later we are still awaiting a public statement from the mayor’s office about the future of our Visitors Center and our Volunteer Tourism Ambassador program. About half of the present volunteers signed a letter to the mayor and Mobile City Council making five recommendations about the future of Fort Conde and the Visitors Center.
The letter was presented at the Oct. 19 City Council meeting. At the time of this letter’s composition, the administration has never made any public response to our recommendations.
We feel 50 days is adequate time for the city to develop an operating plan for the Visitors Center. We also feel the mayor’s office should be transparent about its plans to lease Fort Conde to possible tourism operators. We also question the fairness of removing two Mobile tourism operators from Fort Conde by giving a preferred monopoly to a third-party tour operator.
Quite simply, Fort Conde has been promoted since 1983 in travel guides as the Visitors Center of Mobile and as the historic reconstructed site of the first permanent capitol of French Louisiana. Since 1983, the fort has had free admission.
Changing that without a concerted public awareness campaign will do far more damage to our city’s reputation than the increase in revenue from a third-party lease. Attracting people to a paid attraction that is presently advertised as a free family sightseeing opportunity is really a bait-and-switch proposition even if this is not our intention.
In addition many area school children who presently make field trips to Fort Conde will be affected if an admission charge is collected.
Quite simply, the city needs to hire a full-time Visitors Center manager and develop a transition plan so all four of Mobile’s tourism operators benefit from visitors to our historic, 300-year-old city.