On a frigid afternoon earlier this year, fiery Virginia legislator Patrick Henry addresses his fellow colonists inside the Kimball Theatre on Colonial Williamsburg's Merchants Square as if it's still 1774. For 40 minutes, he rails against British taxation, warning that there's trouble ahead if King George doesn't back down.
After he finishes, he takes questions from the audience. They're not in period garb like Henry, but they play along, asking questions about the recent tea uprising in Boston Harbor and Benjamin Franklin's negotiations in London seeking a peaceful resolution to the dispute.
On a typical summer day, Richard Schumann's performance as the founding father who would later proclaim "Give me liberty or give me death" will fill the 400-seat theater twice in an afternoon. On this wintry afternoon, however, he faces only about 50 hard-core history buffs. Weather gets the blame for the light attendance this day, but it's also indicative of a long-term trend of declining attendance at Colonial Williamsburg and other historic travel sites across the country.
At Colonial Williamsburg, for instance, attendance dropped from 950,000 only a couple of years ago to 730,000 in 2003, contributing to a bottom-line deficit of $30 million (covered by endowment funds) on an operating budget of $200 million for the nonprofit Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. During the year, about 400 positions were eliminated, reducing the staff of historians, fund-raisers, character actors, blacksmiths, service personnel, and others to about 3,200. The poor economy, 9/11, and a spate of bad weather, including a major ice storm and a hurricane, are partly to blame. But competition has also increased as historic sites, large and small, are jumping on the heritage travel bandwagon (coming this fall, a "V-8 Vacation" for car buffs to historic Michigan spots related to the auto industry).