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Moves on Park Service at Fort Monroe may be imminent
David Macaulay, email@example.com | 247-7838
HAMPTON ó He made no promises about the National Park Service coming to Fort Monroe but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar indicated key decisions will be made soon about the community's future on a fact-finding visit Wednesday, as the Army's withdrawal on Sept. 15 approaches.
Salazar toured Fort Monroe and then took questions from an audience of approximately 100 people. Many of them urged him to mark Fort Monroe's importance in the African American history of the United States by pressing President Barack Obama to create a National Monument in Hampton.
On the same day, Virginia's U.S. Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner introduced legislation to establish a unit of the National Park Service. The Fort Monroe National Historical Park Establishment Act of 2011 would authorize the park service to establish a national park presence at the post to "preserve historic and natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations."
Salazar said Fort Monroe faces three options:
Given the relative speed associated with an Antiquities Act proclamation, this appeared to be the favored route of many members of the public who were polled in a show of hands by Salazar. There was also widespread support for the creation of a national park by the more lengthy Congressional route. Nobody favored the option to forego a national park unit.
Salazar indicated the direction of Fort Monroe's future may be known soon.
"Continuing this effort is very important and also because of the time constraints that we are under," he said. "When you think about the fact that we are right around the 4th of July celebration here and some decisions will have to be made and efforts underway before Sept. 15 if we take one pathway," he said.
Salazar said members of the Congressional delegation and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell have been "working on this issue for a very long time."
Salazar said national parks attract almost 300 million visitors a year and are a "significant part of the economic engine of America."
Of Fort Monroe he said, "people feel so passionately about the protection of this special place."
And Salazar announced National Park Service and state officials will return to the area in two weeks' time for another "listening session."
"This effort today is part of our process to gather information. We've gathered information through your comments and all the voices from the officials who are here, as well as from all you," he told the public at a meeting at the Bay Breeze Center on the post.
Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, appeared supportive of continued federal involvement via a partnership.
"This really has it all in many ways," he said of Fort Monroe. "This incredible access to the Chesapeake Bay, this incredible history and the opportunity for a public-private partnership with the state and the feds and the private sector."
Terrie Suit, who chairs the board of the Fort Monroe Authority, said: "Virginia's history is the nation's history and is our world's history. We've got to be willing to partner and share and work together. We believe that that partnership with the National Park Service is absolutely the best way that we can share the telling of these stories, these incredible, incredible lessons learned for America, this nation and this world," she said.
While a bill has already been introduced into the Senate, U.S. Rep Scott Rigell, R-Virginia Beach, is poised to introduce a similar bill to the House of Representatives. It has all party support locally.
"Based on the full agreement and the supportive comments we have heard across this room today, it's very clear that this community is united," Rigell said. "This is well beyond the preservation of brick and mortar. It is the preservation of who we are as a people, where we've come from. These are lessons that need to be shared with our young people."
It is important that the national story is told at Monroe and in particular the African-American story, said U.S. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, D-Newport News. "The public has spoken and they clearly want the National Park," he said.
"We are all looking for the presidential designation under the Antiquities Act and hopefully you've heard our message," Scott said.
Hampton Mayor Molly Ward cited the united effort of residents and officials. "You can see what kind of community support we have for this initiative. I pledge the city of Hampton is united behind this effort."
A number of members of the public called on Salazar to celebrate Monroe's important place in history by supporting a national park or a national monument.
"There is very high public support in this region for a national park at Fort Monroe. Thousands of citizens have signed petitions. Polls have consistently showed support for a National Park presence at 80-90 percent level," said Mark Perreault, president of Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park.
Veronica Davis said she had been moved as a child by the contraband story, referring to the moment in May 1861 when the fort's commander, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, refused to return three slaves who came to the fortress in May 1861, effectively classifying them as "contraband" of war, thus changing the course of the Civil War and the nation's history.
"But maybe a couple of months back that I was told another story about the arrival of the first Africans. So I'm here to ask that we please consider this as a national monument because it holds memories, not just of the present day, but in the past days that help us grow as Americans."