One year after announcing what was intended to be a temporary pause in its operations, a Columbus tourist attraction permanently has closed.
Historic Westville, a living history museum that demonstrated 19th-century Southern culture, didn’t raise the money necessary to reopen, Westville president and chairman George Singer confirmed Thursday to the Ledger-Enquirer.
In an email to the L-E, Singer said the Westville board “has come to the realization that the Westville Village, as an historical attraction, can no longer be self-sustaining and is no longer financially viable.”
The L-E reported in September 2021 that Westville was struggling financially after being closed for several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic and reopening in October 2020 with coronavirus protocols in place.
Westville not only was dealing with decreased ticket sales but also paying the $9.5 million cost of moving its 17 historic buildings from Lumpkin, about 40 miles south of Columbus, that was completed in June 2019.
“The purpose of moving the Westville Village to Columbus from Lumpkin was to place it in a location where more visitors could be attracted, and the historic structures and artifacts properly maintained and displayed for years to come,” Singer wrote in the email. “It was felt that, as part of the critical mass of tourist attractions now located in Columbus, Georgia, Westville Village would draw sufficient visitors to pay its expenses. Because of a number of factors, not the least of which was closure due to the pandemic and the inability to attract sufficient visitors thereafter, the Board of Directors has decided to close Westville Village and dissolve the corporation.”
Financial burdens of moving and COVID shutdown
Singer told the L-E last year that the museum still was recovering from the financial burdens of its move and its COVID shutdown.
“Although Westville has been able to overcome the majority of costs associated with these events, they have taxed our financial resources to the point that the organization needs to close temporarily,” he said then. “We are hoping to use this time to raise operational funds and to evaluate how the organization can adapt and diversify revenue streams in an effort to become more sustainable.”
The mock village opened in Lumpkin in 1966 on 80 acres. The current location is on 35 acres, about half a mile from the National Infantry Museum & Soldier Center outside Fort Benning and Columbus State University’s Oxbow Meadows Environmental Learning Center.
As of last year, Westville had 13 employees, five of them full-time, plus a group of volunteers who helped with interpretation, crafts and museum operations.
Gratitude for supporters
In an interview Thursday, Singer thanked Westville’s supporters.
“Due to their support, Westville has been able to share historical experiences with thousands of people that will last a lifetime,” he said. “For more than six decades, this experience has been shared with visitors from around the world.”
Singer also praised Westville’s employees and volunteers.
“As a result of their time and their knowledge,” he said, “they have taught visitors life in the South during the 1850s. I also would like to thank the cities of Lumpkin and Columbus for providing Westville the opportunity to be a living history museum in the community.”
Westville has been leasing the land from the Columbus Consolidated Government. As for the historic structures, which Westville owns, the board will try to find suitable organizations to take them, Singer said.
Singer declined to say how much money Westville needed to reopen. He also wouldn’t specify visitation numbers, but he said in last year’s interview, “Initial visitation on reopening was strong but slowed in winter 2019/2020 (typical) and obviously stopped for a prolonged period during COVID. Visitation post-COVID has increased in 2021/2022 and continues that trend in 2023, but has still not reached our projections.”
Understanding that generations of his family have been involved with Westville for six decades, Singer explained what this news means to him.
“It’s incredibly tough,” he said. “I mean, I grew up being part of Westville, different events, volunteering, and to see all of the people that have contributed their time, money — so many people helped Westville in so many different ways. So for me, personally, it’s difficult to see Westville close.”
Impact of Westville closing
VisitColumbusGA president and CEO Peter Bowden, who has been serving as the Westville board’s treasurer and secretary, told the Ledger-Enquirer that Westville didn’t have the resources to persevere through a tough convergence of headwinds.
“COVID dealt Westville a perfect storm, happening right after the move and stopping the momentum when the whole travel industry changed,” Bowden said. “It just was unfortunate timing. Even though there’s been tremendous success in the growth and development of the city, when we look at visitors coming to Columbus last fiscal year, we saw a decline overall, so we’re still tracking a recovery from COVID. Westville, unfortunately, is one of those injuries that happened because of this.”
After he died in 1961, West’s project was revived. Columbus Museum curator Joseph Mahan and a group of Stewart County residents moved the buildings to Lumpkin and opened Westville in 1970.
But although Westville has deep roots, its move to Columbus returned the organization to being a startup in essence, Bowden said. The financial challenges while recovering from the COVID pandemic recession proved too much to overcome.
“Other attractions in Columbus had more resiliency,” he said, “because they were more established.”
The loss of Westville in the VisitColumbusGA portfolio might hurt other attractions in Columbus, but Bowden expressed confidence in the local tourism industry’s ability to rebound.
“We like to say oftentimes that a destination is just one thing, but Columbus is fortunate to have multiple attractions, such as whitewater (rafting and kayaking), world-class museums, trails, etc.,” he said. “… When we lose a component like this, we have to look at what we offer strategically and adjust that expectation and fill the gap with other things.”
Bowden acknowledged the permanent closing of Westville also eliminates a useful location for movie and television productions seeking historic settings to be filmed in Columbus. The L-E reported in June that a new Western-themed TV series titled “Side Trails” was planned for filming at Westville.
The prospective series is a project by Blue Heron Films, based in Canton, Georgia. Despite the closure of Westville, Blue Heron still wants to film there, company president Sue Ann Taylor told the L-E.
“We are still very interested and hope something works out, but we are committed to making the series regardless,” Taylor said in an email Thursday. “I do think that closing it is a terrible loss to the community and to experiential history. I have visited dozens of such places to scout locations and personal interest and found Westville Village best in class. Hopefully they will reconsider.”
This story was originally published February 8, 2024, 3:03 PM.