Reader raises questions about History Prize.

February 10, 2015

Letter to the Editor: 

A February 10 Mason County Press article about the interactions between the History Prize Board of Directors and Mara McKay have left more questions than answers, and a lot of frustration and confusion in the community. The original announcement in the October 24 Mason County Press article stated that McKay conceived of the idea, worked with the organizers of Art Prize and got a startup grant from the Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism. Ludington won because it was a “community that embraces history.” Shortly thereafter, a committee was formed with community business, social, academic leaders, and community members to work with McKay in moving History Prize from an idea to a reality. Last week, the community was in shock as the Board dropped support for the idea. Few outside of McKay and the Board knew there was a problem.

There appears to be to main sticking points crippling this wonderful opportunity: funding and shared ownership of the name. Ms. McKay was quoted in another newspaper that she has invested a lot of money in this project, and as a single-mother, she wanted to protect that investment. It is not unusual to have a dream and invest a lot of personal time and resources in a dream; however, most investing in those dreams require some form of security to ensure their money is used for the project and not just to pay off the entrepreneur’s startup debt. There are single parents throughout our community (I was personally a single parent for seven years) who work hard at creating their dream. Their ability to work with the community, their vendors, and their investors ensure success and that is how they protect their investment. I would think the priority would be to ensure History Prize was a success and that success would provide the funds to repay her initial investment.

The news articles indicated that the History Prize could draw potentially 100,000 visitors the first year and cost an up to $1 million from corporate donations and grants. McKay said in the MCP February 6th article that “Statewide thousands of Michigan residents supported the History Prize Project with interest and enthusiasm,” she said. “Ludington residents will be joining regional and statewide advocates for History Prize as history enthusiasts, artists, creative business partners and Ludington and Scottville residents come together to make this event happen in west Michigan.”

Did those figures come from McKay, Art Prize, or collectively from McKay, Art Prize, and the Board? Did anyone on the Board do due diligence on those predictions? When I worked as a reporter, I used to hear a lot of “pie in the sky” predictions that were based more on enthusiasm than actual facts. More questions need asked about those numbers, where they came from and how they were analyzed, and have that information passed to the community at large. (I tried to check out the concept and research behind her statements, but would not load.) This due diligence should have been done in the beginning, but that is no reason not to provide the community with answers now. It was also noted in the newspaper that McKay was responsible for getting the corporate donations and grants and it appears that funding was woefully behind schedule. According to the February 6th MCP article, she stressed that she is the “founder” of History Prize, but has had only one meeting with her advisory group (in December) and is currently “at the onset putting our fund development plan in place.” I’d think that her advisory group would include some Ludington residents, but none were mentioned. I think by providing facts to back up her predictions, McKay would go a long way in improving her credibility with the Board and the community at large.

The second sticking point is shared ownership of the name “History Prize,” which McKay has registered in her company’s name. (McKay owns “Old Wood, LLC.) History Prize will be expensive undertaking ($750,000 or more), so I do not see shared ownership as being an unreasonable request. Ludington corporations and the community itself will be investing a lot to make McKay’s dream a reality. Although the February 6th article indicated that they would be responsible for getting corporate sponsorships and grants to cover the cost, it is our community. The Board had an obligation to ensure we aren’t taken for a ride and left in two years with massive debt and egg on our collective faces. McKay indicated that keeping the control of the name would be her only way to recoup the “personal investment” she has made in the project to date. (Yet, in the original article, she said that the “name most likely will change.”) This raises several questions. If the name most likely will change, why fight over it. What about the community members who made donations to the “cause,” or those small businesses that invest in their facilities to support the events? I am sure they also would like some way to “recoup” their investment too.

McKay intends to move forward, but she hasn’t addressed one of the main sticking points that convinced the Board to pull the plug. I may be wrong, and I hope I am, but if it was a great idea, then why the worry about recouping her loss over the concerns of the community involved in hosting and helping fund the program. What guarantee do the corporate sponsors and community have that the rug will not be pulled out from under them after McKay has her money?

As I said, there are many questions. The original idea was and is still great and it has created a lot of enthusiasm, but there are a lot of great ideas that end up in the trash bin because of arrogance, trust issues, inability to negotiate, and a host of other reasons. Let us hope that the parties involved in History Prize can sit down and work out their differences. It would be a tremendous benefit to the community and a real boost to our area businesses. However, I also think that something this large requires more communication and cooperation with the public from both sides. We understand that McKay is going to continue, but that does not address the problems raised by the Board. Until those are addressed, I fear that this opportunity will be squandered and that would be a shame. We need to work together and basically it appears that McKay has said she doesn’t need the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, which excludes a significant part of the community she will require to make this a success.

Al Geist


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