By Ryan Cornell
Winchester resident Kristen Laise has been selected as the new executive director of Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown.
Laise replaces Elizabeth McClung, who is retiring from the position after nearly 17 years. Laise's first day on the job is July 29.
A five-person search committee, composed of Board Chairman John Adamson, former Board Chairman Fred Andreae, lead volunteer Nancy Comer and board members Sandy Dunkle and Kris Tierney, was formed near the end of March to find a successor to McClung.
Adamson said Monday that the position attracted 47 applicants from across the country, many drawn from national advertisements through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns Belle Grove Inc.
"I'm really excited we were able to find such a well-qualified, enthusiastic candidate," Adamson said. "I feel very confident we found the best of all the candidates."
He said the committee consulted with Skywalk Group, a recruitment firm based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The firm had recently helped select a new executive director for Brucemore, a historic site also owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Skywalk reviewed applicants' cover letters, resumes and references and selected the top dozen candidates. After asking six of its favorite candidates to provide written responses to questions relevant to Belle Grove, the committee narrowed its pool down to two candidates.
The two were then asked to conduct face-to-face interviews in which they met the staff, board of directors and volunteers. The committee asked for feedback.
"Kristen was by far the leading choice among them," Adamson said.
For the search committee, the decision was unanimous.
Laise has a calmness in front of people and a passion for the local area, the chairman said..
"It wasn't a criterion for anyone, but clearly someone who knows the Shenandoah Valley and lives here because they like it are valid considerations," Adamson said.
"She did all the right homework," he said "It was clear she wanted to serve the community by being at Belle Grove."
Adamson said Laise will be responsible for the daily operations of the plantation, the hiring and evaluation of staff, coordinating volunteers, promoting exhibits and "establishing a strategic direction for Belle Grove."
Her plate already comes filled with future projects. In addition to hosting the 2013 National Sheepdog Finals in October, she'll manage a project to convert the park's agriculture barn into a visitor's center and another to develop the 96 acres of property at Bowman's Fort.
Laise, who's been living with her husband and mother-in-law in Winchester since 2007, had visited Belle Grove as a casual visitor many times, but said she had never realized how much land had been preserved.
"Driving down Route 11, you see power lines and cell phone towers," she said. "And then you see Belle Grove and how restful it is, how impressive it is."
Laise has a bachelor of arts in history and art history from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., and a master of arts in art history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She worked as a volunteer at a restoration of two historic sites in rural France and has interned with the Cincinnati Art Museum and Smithsonian Institute before joining Historic Preservation in 1998.
Through the 15 years she's been with the organization, her accomplishments include implementing the Heritage Health Index, the first survey on the condition and preservation needs of historical collections; supervising a program that assists 80 to 100 small museums each year and managing the "Connecting to Collections" online community, which offers webinars and online courses for museum and library professionals on preservation information.
She said she dabbles in quilting and enjoys gardening and shopping at local farmers' markets.
Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org