LACONIA — The troubles besetting the Belknap Mill Society began not long after the departure of longtime executive director Mary Boswell in 2006 and within five years the financial challenges facing the organization appear to have become insurmountable.
Last month Christine Santaniello, who became president of society last spring, announced that it no longer has the financial capacity to own and maintain the mill and was seeking partners in an effort to transfer ownership of the building while ensuring the society would be able to maintain its presence and educational mission.
Filings with the Internal Revenue Service reveal that the society operated more than $59,000 in the red in 2013. Santaniello has indicated that there are sufficient reserves now on hand to support operations for approximately six months. And the society has an outstanding debt of some $40,000 owed to the Belknap Economic Development Council.
Boswell, who is now the executive director of the Historical Society of Frederick County in Maryland, said that when she left the society was on a sound footing, but at the same time acknowledged that nonprofit corporations were facing ever stiffer financial challenges. Reductions in funding by federal and state governments, she said, led to increasing competition increased competition for scarce resources, which required nonprofit corporations to mount more professional and aggressive fundraising campaigns. In particular, she noted that foundations and donors came to expect nonprofit corporations to develop stable revenue streams and, while willing to contribute to capital projects, became reluctant to fund operating expenses.
After Boswell departed the society hired an office manager but not until November, 2007 was Suzanne Lee, a former fashion designer with an art gallery in Meredith, named executive director. However, after eight months she left and John Moriarty, who had served as a trustee since 2004, became acting executive director in June, 2008 and by the end of the year was appointed executive director.
Moriarty, who served until June, 2011, said that he was hesitant to discuss his tenure in detail, but, referring to a report in The Daily Sun on the financial troubles of the society, said "I don't disagree with what I have read in the newspaper." Although that report included a statement by David Stamps, who served as treasurer of the society from 2011 to 2014, that the organization has been operating at a loss for "many, many years," Moriarty said "I don't believe there were operating losses."
While the recession hastened the erosion of the society's financial condition, the society wrestled with redefining its mission, a process that ultimately sowed dissension and bred turnover among the trustees. During her brief spell, Lee envisioned the mill as the hub of visual arts arts community. She told the press that "this building should be the center of the resurgence of culture in Laconia."
Moriarty pursued and broadened this theme. The mill hosted an evening of rock 'n roll with four bands, along with other musical performances, and exhibitions of visual arts. "The mill is reasserting itself as the cultural center of the Lakes Region," he said. At the same time, Moriarty began exploring the synergies to be found in associating the mill with the Colonial Theater, the restoration of which was high on the agenda of city officials.
Some, including former trustees like Paul Morin, whose family owned the mill when it was producing hosiery, questioned this diverse programming, which they believed diluted the essential character of the mill and original mission of the society. as a landmark of the city's industrial heritage. Their misgivings were all the greater as the financial circumstances of society failed to improve but continued to weaken.
In 2011, several former trustees returned to the board in an effort to right the ship. Moriarty stepped down. A dormant membership drive was renewed. A grant writer was engaged. A development plan was prepared and a strategic plan was begun. A new logo was introduced along with a fresh tag line — "where arts and history come alive." An executive director was hired.
But, said Stamps, "it was too little, too late."
Following another reshuffling of the board of trustees, Santaniello became president and quickly convened a finance committee composed of trustees with extensive experience of financing nonprofit corporations. "We are not the problem,," she insisted. "We have taken our responsibilities very seriously."
"We can't put the fingers in the dike," Santaniello said. "Without money, there is no mission. We're not looking for a short-term fix, but a long-term solution."
The City Council has invited the public to contribute to the discussion about the future of the mill when it meets on Monday, December 8, beginning at 7 p.m.
Santaniello said that she will outline the challenges facing the mill and looks forward to hearing the response from the public.