Fligsten leaving advocacy group; Foundation head's resignation stuns preservationists


Ann Fligsten, president of the influential Historic Annapolis Foundation, suddenly announced her resignation yesterday to pursue a career in museum management.

Fligsten, 53, led the Annapolis nonprofit organization for eight years, through several battles to preserve the historic ambience of the state capital.

She fought against demolishing the shell of the 1899 building burned in the five-alarm Main Street fire of 1997, protested expansion of 137-year-old St. Anne's Episcopal Church last year -- which included excavating Colonial-era graves -- and, most recently, lobbied Anne Arundel Medical Center officials to select a development plan for its downtown property that would preserve the city's character.

Fligsten stunned preservationists and Annapolitans with whom she has worked closely by announcing she's more than ready to move on.

"It was a hard decision," said the Arnold resident. "I've loved it, but I came here never thinking this would be the last step in my career. At some point, you want to get fresh ideas and fresh blood in the organization, and I just don't want to get stale. I'm ready for a change."

Others in the city weren't as prepared for change. They reported seeing no signs she was getting ready to depart as they worked with her on a proposed downtown Annapolis history museum and other projects.

"I was very shocked to hear it," said David G. Blick, chairman of the city's Historic Preservation Commission, which reviews external renovations within the historic district. "I hadn't heard anything about her even thinking of leaving. The HPC has really appreciated her role in preserving downtown Annapolis. On the major issues we've faced, we've come together, and I think that has had a positive impact."

Fligsten, an attorney, joined the Historic Annapolis board in 1977 after representing the group the year before in a successful lawsuit to prevent the owner of a barbershop on Prince George Street from razing the building.

She stepped in as interim president when Joseph Coales left in 1991 and assumed full-time leadership the next year.

Surviving a crisis

Brad Davidson, chairman of the Historic Annapolis Foundation board of directors, said Fligsten became president during precarious financial times.

The early 1990s recession brought on significant funding cuts that forced Fligsten to give her staff of 16 a leave of absence while she figured out a financial solution.

"Ann basically took this organization from financial difficulty and turned it into a robust, dynamic and growing organization," Davidson said. "Our endowment has grown from $0 to $1.1 million."

Fligsten expanded the group's fund raising by diversifying sources of income.

Three years ago, she expanded the group's store at the City Dock, which now brings in $400,000 annually. Before the expansion, it brought in $60,000 a year.

Fligsten said she does have regrets as she leaves -- the chief one being the burned Main Street building that Historic Annapolis and the preservation commission were not able to save.

"It was very divisive for the city, and I wish we had saved it," Fligsten said.

"With all the publicity it got as a burned building," she said jokingly, "I thought it could be revived and turned into a restaurant called Main Street Grill and use all that as part of the marketing."

Fligsten said she plans to start looking for a museum job in the Baltimore-Washington area within a few months.

Search for new president

She will remain president until Oct. 31 and help the interim leader -- board member Sharon Kennedy -- until the foundation board selects a new president.

Davidson said the board plans to conduct a national search for a new president and hopes to make its decision within six months.

"We're looking for someone committed to historic preservation, increasing the organization's financial strength, capable of continuing excellent work," he said. "All the usual superhuman qualities that any nonprofit seeks."

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