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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Strategic Notes from FEE—Bricks & Mortar

May 2014

FEE has entered into a contract for sale of its historic headquarters in Irvington-on-Hudson, NY and is consolidating its operations in rented office space in Atlanta. We are expecting to close the sale and complete the move by the end of the year.

From a business perspective, this was an inescapable decision. Emotionally, it was gut-wrenching.

The owner of real estate faces the risks that, over time, the structures will become less sound, the footprint less useful, and the location less suitable. All three risks became reality for FEE.

Physically, the structures are 125 years old, enormously expensive to operate and seriously in need of repairs and replacements.

Functionally, the footprint is too large for our publishing business and too small for our educational business.

It wasn’t always too large for the publishing business, as is illustrated by the above photograph of dedicated FEE employees in the 1950s. Today, however, substantially all of the work pictured there is either automated or outsourced.

It wasn’t always too small for the seminars, but demand for FEE seminars has skyrocketed. We’ve been able to double the size of our seminars at half the cost per head by holding them on college campuses throughout the country.

The location, close to New York City, was expedient for an educator and publisher in an era of difficult transportation and costly communication. In today’s environment, for such an organization, seeking (as FEE is) to build out its talented team and expand its audience network, it is expedient to be in a lower-cost regional center with excellent airline connections. 

To preserve the memories of our heritage, even as we grow beyond the limitations of the property, we will certainly retain the most valuable books and artifacts from the Irvington mansion and feature them in our Atlanta offices when we move into permanent space.

Parting with the Irvington property is very painful for us who work here and for countless friends of FEE, for whom the property carries vivid memories of life-changing experiences and extraordinary people.

It’s a lovable and magnificent old pile, no matter how many repairs it needs. It played a pivotal role in the movement for liberty in the US in the second half of the 20th Century. Many of the movement’s leaders met, performed research and taught in the FEE mansion. Generations of students got their first exposure to the freedom philosophy from seminars conducted on the premises and from the steady stream of books and magazine articles emanating from it.

Still, we had to resolve the question, are we about investing in freedom’s next generation or about preserving memories of the last generation’s heroes by maintaining an expensive museum? Viewed in that light, there was no real choice in the matter.

  • Wayne Olson is the Chairman of FEE's Board of Trustees and a former executive director of the Foundation for Economic Education.