Rutland Herald
April 24, 2012

Electric bill dooms Vermont Marble Museum

   Bruce Edwards

PROCTOR - A popular tourist attraction that houses the history of one of the industrial pillars of the local and state economies can't afford to keep the lights on and is closing. The Vermont Marble Museum will close its doors in the fall after 80 years in business because it can no longer afford to pay the electric bill, owners Marsha and Martin Hemm said Monday.

The Hemms blamed a huge jump in the museum's monthly electric bill after Central Vermont Public Service Corp. completed its purchase last year of the Vermont Marble Power Division from Omya Inc.

"As soon as it changed over, and we have say more realistic or current electric rates, we just can't pay the electric bill," Marsha Hemm said.

Ann Hubbard, the museum's operations manager, said the museum received its first CVPS bill in September for $2,500. Hubbard said the average September bill from the Vermont Marble Power Division was $1,100.

"It's a little painful," Hubbard said.

The museum, which is open from May to mid-October, is busiest in June, July and August. It is also the month when its electric bills are highest. Hubbard said that in the past a July bill would average between $1,300 and $1,700. Hemm said she didn't regard CVPS as the bad guy and that higher electric rates in town were inevitable. But Hemm also said that in addition to its regular rate, CVPS also assesses a demand charge, which increases the bill.

The head of the state Department of Tourism and Marketing said closing the museum would be a tremendous loss.

"It's a gem," Commissioner Megan Smith said. "It (is) such a fabulous part of our tourism and our history."

For five years, Smith ran Dimensions of Marble, a nonprofit that promotes the legacy and contributions of the marble industry to the state and region. But Smith said that during her tenure it was difficult to arouse much interest, let alone financial support, in the industry's legacy.

She added that she would like to find some way to save the museum.

Although the museum is closing, the Hemms said they'll continue to operate the Vermont Marble Museum wholesale and online businesses as well as their commercial enterprise, Carl Schilling Stoneworks.

Hemm said the biggest expense in the 100,000-square-foot building is the extensive lighting for the exhibits.

"We never made a huge profit in the museum, but we were always able to cover expenses and we kept it going because it was a good complement to our other businesses," she said, "but when the cost of running it doubles or triples, we can't put ourselves in a hole."

Attendance at the museum dropped off after Tropical Storm Irene, but Hemm said that prior to that "we had really good attendance."

Martin Hemm said they tried switching to energy-efficient lighting but that didn't work because power surges caused the low-voltage lights to burn out. "They didn't even last a day sometimes," he said.

For decades, Proctor residents and businesses enjoyed relatively low electric rates under the Vermont Marble Power Division, an offshoot of the old Vermont Marble Co.

But when CVPS announced the purchase of the small power company two years ago, CVPS officials warned that Proctor residents and businesses would pay more as rates were brought in line with rates paid by its other customers. CVPS also pointed out that under Omya's ownership, maintenance and upgrades to the Vermont Marble Power hydro-electric facilities had been deferred, resulting in artificially low electric rates.

CVPS declined to comment on customer-specific information.

"First, and foremost, CVPS supports our local businesses and wants to see them prosper and remain in business," CVPS spokeswoman Christine Rivers said in an email. "Having said that, we cannot give out customer-specific information, and that includes anything specific to Vermont Marble Museum."

Rivers said in a subsequent email that "CVPS bills some (nonresidential) accounts via demand charges and energy charges," which is a common practice in the industry.

To avoid sticker shock, CVPS rates are being phased in for Proctor's residential customers. However, commercial customers saw their bills jump all at once.

The museum chronicles the history of the marble industry and the Vermont Marble Co. - at one time the largest marble company in the world, employing thousands of workers, many of whom were newly arrived immigrants from Europe.

The museum's exhibits include the Hall of Presidents - white marble busts of every U.S. president.

The Hemms purchased the museum and property from Omya nearly 20 years ago. It includes the adjacent Vermont Marble Co. fabrication plant, which the Hemms use for storage.

The Hemms are putting the word out for help in relocating the museum's artifacts and documentation, including blueprints for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

When told of the museum's planned closing, Proctor Town Clerk Mary Dahlin said it would be a blow to the town's history.

"It's a shame, it's a real shame," said Dahlin, a lifelong Proctor resident, who recalled how during its heyday the Vermont Marble Co. was the lifeblood of the town.