*** Published Thursday, March 25, 2010 in the Bristol Herald Courier. Reprinted by permission. ***
BRISTOL, Va. – A local nonprofit organization conducting a $10 million fundraising campaign can't pay its executive director's salary.
Last week, Birthplace of Country Music Alliance board members voted to lay off Executive Director Bill Hartley, citing an inability to continue paying his $40,000 annual salary and benefits, board Chairman Edd Hill said Wednesday.
"The Executive Committee met last week and it was a unanimous decision to lay Bill off because we didn't have the funds to pay him," Hill said. "Everybody loves Bill, so this is very emotional. But we had to put our feelings aside."
Alliance officials recently announced they've raised about $6.4 million toward establishing a proposed heritage center inside a vacant Cumberland Street building. But all of those funds are separate from the group's $250,000 annual operating budget.
"We've been raising money for the cultural heritage center, but that money is untouchable until we get all of it and begin construction," Hill said. "And our operating income is not what we expected it to be. We've missed some projections on income for shows and events this winter."
Hartley, 39, is a Bristol native. His severance package includes a month's salary and saving the balance of his salary is expected to bring the BCMA's operating budget back into balance, Hill said.
The alliance derives operating funds from both cities, state arts grants, donations from individuals and organizations, along with income from concerts and other special events.
Donations have slowed amid the poor economy and attendance at the organization's recent concerts has fallen far short of expectations, Hill said.
A group of unpaid board members will assume the bulk of Hartley's responsibilities and the alliance will operate with one full-time employee – Administrative and Marketing Director Suzanne Brewster.
Given the uncertain financial climate and Hartley's need to find other employment, Hill said the board "couldn't" guarantee Hartley the opportunity to return to the post if conditions improve.
"Once we start construction and need a curator or historian, he would be the No. 1 choice for that," Hill said. "We appreciate everything that Bill has done for the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance."
Hartley, who worked there for nine years, said Wednesday he's disappointed but remains a supporter of the group and its mission.
"I believe very passionately about the subject and the potential that building has and what it can mean to the community," Hartley said. "I'm proud of what we've been able to do the last nine years and very appreciative of all the people along the way who helped us. I hope the community will continue to support the organization and the board."
The proposed center would showcase the Twin City's role in developing country and bluegrass music. A study by the University of Virginia's Weldon-Cooper Center projects it would attract 75,000 visitors its first year.
Still, Hill admitted there may be some negative reaction to Hartley's departure.
"Bill has a lot of friends in this community and I'm sure they're hurting for Bill and have many questions about why did we do this and why now. And we'll try to answer those questions," Hill said