Mitchell B. Reiss, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s president and CEO who has been the architect of a series of overhauls at the living history museum since he took over in late 2014, is stepping down.
Reiss will leave at the end of October, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation announced Tuesday.
A search is underway for his successor.
“I believe that Colonial Williamsburg continues to have an important role to play in our rapidly changing world as a place that speaks to all who love freedom and who revere this country’s founding ideals,” Reiss said in a statement.
“It’s been a privilege to work every day with such talented and dedicated colleagues, and I am very proud of all that we have accomplished together.”
During his tenure, Reiss has presided over major changes to staffing and programs as the foundation has tried to stem years of financial losses and declining attendance that have been draining its endowment.
For instance, in 2017 it outsourced to private vendors some of its operations, such as its golf operations, its retail stores, much of its maintenance and facilities operations and its commercial real estate management.
Also under Reiss, Colonial Williamsburg has offered a Halloween program that included costume contests, pirate games and tours of the jail, where interpreters portrayed imprisoned “undead” buccaneers. It also added a skating rink on Duke of Gloucester Street for the winter months and started uplighting the iconic buildings in the Historic Area.
He also approved the foundation’s first-ever Super Bowl ad in 2016, which was narrated by former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw. The ad featured images of presidents, innovators, accomplishments and seminal events, as well as a depiction of the World Trade Center rising from the ashes of ground zero.
“Mitchell has worked successfully to help Colonial Williamsburg navigate unprecedented cultural and technological shifts, building a record of solid accomplishment under his tenure,” said Thurston R. Moore, chairman of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation board of trustees who is a lawyer with Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP in Richmond.
“Among other things, he led us through a difficult but necessary organizational restructuring; improved our guest experience; invested in a diverse and inclusive workforce; and completed fundraising to expand and renovate the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.”
Attendance had improved each year during the first full three years of Reiss’ tenure, after declining for seven years before his arrival.
Colonial Williamsburg had 574,333 visitors in 2015, 584,472 guests in 2016 and 594,378 visitors in 2017. But attendance fell 7.4% to 550,171 last year compared with the prior year.
The foundation’s total assets stood at $1.1 billion as of Dec. 31, 2017, the latest figures available. Total assets remained relatively flat compared to the prior year.
In 2017, total revenues fell 0.4% to $228 million from 2016. Operating revenue, which includes admission ticket sales, hotel and restaurant revenue, retail sales and real estate rental, fell 7.6% to $109 million compared with the 2016 results, primarily reflecting the outsourcing of retail operations.
Established in 1926, the foundation operates the 301-acre Colonial Williamsburg site, which includes 88 original buildings and 500 buildings reconstructed according to architectural research.