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Editorial: Fort Monroe
A new planning authority has the expertise and insight to get the reuse right
8:09 p.m. EDT, April 30, 2011
People who have an interest in what happens to Fort Monroe might want to attend one of the meetings of the new Fort Monroe Authority. It may make them feel encouraged about its future.
The new authority is not just an updated version of the succession of panels that have taken on the job of planning for the base's future after the Army leaves this September. It is a new creation, coming out of legislation passed in the 2010 General Assembly. Gov. Bob McDonnell took advantage of the opportunity and appointed a board that brings a new level of experience, expertise and vision to the task.
It's unfortunate that six years have passed since the Army decided to leave and D, as in Departure, Day is bearing down. The intervening years could have been put to better use, but there's this consolation: Transformation to a new civilian life will take years to complete, and there is still time to get it right.
This board inspires more confidence than we have had that that life will be as lively as it deserves to be, as balanced, as respectful of history and nature as it is of economic necessity and opportunity.
The expectations of the new board are both higher and more realistic. A striking indicator of this new spirit is its willingness to ask the questions that beg to be asked about whether the reuse model already adopted is economically feasible.
It is also willing to reconsider the long-standing policy, codified into law, that property on base would only be leased, not sold. On closer examination, it seems that that could throw a major wrench in the plan. When the discussion turns to the implications for financing and construction, it's handy to have at the table people who know about such practical matters, and the Virginia market, such as W.M. Jordan President John Lawson and Towne Bank Chairman Bob Aston, both McDonnell's appointees.
The reuse plan has focused heavily on tourism. Given Fort Monroe's historic and natural resources, this is appropriate, but it would be a mistake to misjudge the potential or what it will cost to achieve it. Who in Virginia understands the promise and vagaries of cultural tourism, the why and how of engaging visitors with history, and the requirements for funding and philanthropic support better than Colonial Williamsburg President Colin Campbell? We don't know how McDonnell convinced Campbell to serve, but we're glad he did.
The group's sensibilities, and realism, will be needed as it negotiates the National Park Service's involvement. Some role for the agency make sense, but how much? It has signaled that it does not want a major role and is only interested in a few sites.
The risk in pushing for a much wider footprint is that the Park Service could with end up with ownership and decision-making power over vital portions of the base but not necessarily commit what it will take to attract visitors and preserve assets. With a backlog of maintenance at other parks and federal budgets under pressure, the Park Service probably isn't Fort Monroe's Daddy Warbucks.
Up to now, the discussion over Fort Monroe has largely been shaped not by the official panel but by groups and individuals advocating for their own vision, which coalesced around a national park and, at the extreme, antipathy to even the judicious development that is appropriate and necessary. This is public land, and public involvement in planning for it is vital and welcome. But to some extent, the push to prohibit the sale of property and hand considerable authority for what will be state property over to a federal steward may have been driven by doubts about the intentions or abilities of the people in the driver's seat. With this new board, there's less reason for that concern.
This is the time to firm up and put in place a plan worthy of this fabulous spot. This is the board to do it.
Copyright © 2011, Newport News, Va., Daily Press