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Fort Monroe's time is now
Fort Monroe could become a tourist attraction and educational resource of national significance - a landmark as well known to Americans as Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown.
But the fort, with a history stretching back to the early 1600s, won't reach its potential unless Virginia's congressional delegation and state government leaders secure the greatest possible involvement from the National Park Service. Last week, Sen. Jim Webb received a letter from the park system's northeast regional director, Dennis Reidenbach, summarizing the results of a visit to the fort by agency officials in July.
The news was heartening: The park service is interested in establishing a presence at the fort in Hampton, primarily on 100 acres in and around the stone fortress and moat.
The response was markedly different than two years ago, when a park service study concluded the obvious - that the land is historically important - but stopped well short of proposing a prominent role in the fort's future. The Army is scheduled to depart next September and transfer ownership of the land to the state.
In addition to outlining the park service's main areas of interest, Reidenbach emphasized the need for greater assurances that the land-use plan for the fort's full 565 acres is compatible with what visitors to a national park typically experience.
Fort Monroe Authority, the state entity overseeing plans for the fort, has welcomed the park service's involvement and should move quickly to remedy its concerns.
The authority envisions creating at Fort Monroe something similar to the Presidio of San Francisco, a historic Army installation that was folded into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area through a public-private partnership. Houses and other buildings on the property are leased to help cover the Presidio's maintenance and operation.
At Fort Monroe, the critical question now - for the congressional delegation, among others - is how much involvement the National Park Service will have in managing and operating Fort Monroe. Our belief is it should be as extensive as possible and go well beyond technical assistance.
The park service possesses interpretive skills and research experience that can't be matched by the state. And the agency's involvement would enhance the fort's profile nationally.
The history of Fort Monroe - particularly the exodus of 10,000 slaves to Hampton during the Civil War - deserves to reach a much wider audience. The opportunity to tell that story and many others will never present itself more clearly than now.