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Old Fort cuts two top administrators Decision made to lower operating expenses while ramping up public programs

Two long-time administrators at Old Fort Niagara have been laid off in what the executive director described last week as a cost-cutting move to restructure how the historical site is run.

Executive Director Robert Emerson confirmed that the positions of two top administrators -- Ray Wigle, director of operations, and Douglas DeCroix, director of research and special programs -- were eliminated last month as the Old Fort Niagara Association sought to cut its administrative expenses.

The decision comes as the organization plans to ramp up its public programs, improve its marketing and expand the size of its temporary staff next summer with the help of a $600,000 grant.

"Part of our logic was we're trying to devote much more of our resources to public programs," Emerson said. "So when we're looking to reduce costs, we're primarily looking at the administrative side of things for places we can save. That's basically how we made that decision."

Emerson said the decision to cut the two positions was based solely on "short-term financial challenges." He would not discuss exactly how much the elimination of the two positions would save.

The duties of both positions will be folded into three other administrative positions, Emerson said.

A grant that funded a portion of DeCroix's position will be shifted to pay another employee, who will take on the duties associated with the grant, Emerson said.

Both Wigle and DeCroix had worked at Old Fort Niagara since the early 1990s. Wigle declined comment last week, and several attempts to reach DeCroix were unsuccessful.

Wigle was named Outstanding Tourism Employee of the Year in 2006 by the New York State Hospitality and Tourism Association.

Wigle and DeCroix were employed by the Old Fort Niagara Association, a nonprofit organization that holds a long-term lease with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to operate the fort.

The association has an operating budget of about $1 million and relies on admissions sales for about half of its revenue. Museum sales, grants and educational program fees make up the rest of the budget, Emerson said.

The fort has seen a declining attendence trend since 2001, but has seen minor increases in the number of visitors during the last two years, Emerson said.

About half of the association's expenses go toward salary and benefits for employees. There are 10 full-time employees at the fort, Emerson said. About 40 seasonal employees work during the summer.

"I think the long-term picture is optimistic, assuming that the bottom doesn't fall out of the tourism industry," he said. "In the short-term, however, we have to be fiscally responsible and not spend more money than we're taking in."

Emerson said the fort has been shifting its resources into expanding its public programs.

It also is in the midst of a seven-year, $3.68 million "Bringing History Alive" improvement plan that began in 2006.

The fort plans to increase the number of seasonal workers next summer as it adds extra programs to mark the 250th anniversary of the siege of the fort. The association received a $650,000 grant from the John R. Oishei Foundation to expand its public programs and marketing efforts.

"It's not a bleak picture, but one thing that people need to understand is that many of these projects that are being funded, that funding is going toward these projects. It's not for operating overhead," Emerson said. "We can't use funding that is intended for these special projects for administrative staff."

e-mail: djgee@buffnews.com

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