SEE RESIDENTIAL HOUSING AVAILABLE NOW
Va. pushes to create National Park at Fort Monroe
By: BROCK VERGAKIS | The Associated Press August 01, 2011
HAMPTON -- On a small sliver of land at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay stands a fortress so steeped in American history that officials here are convinced it should become a national park when the Army leaves after nearly 200 years.
But they'll have to persuade Congress to pick up the tab.
U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, R-2nd, said operating a national park on the peninsula where the first African slaves were brought into the country would likely cost about $600,000 a year, the first time a price has been pegged to Fort Monroe's conversion. Those costs would come as the National Park Service is facing a $10 billion maintenance backlog for its existing parks and Congress scrambles to find ways to cut the national deficit.
"I think finding $600,000 in offsets, frankly, is like finding a penny on the ground. It will not be difficult to find $600,000 that I think we can get our colleagues to agree to. I'm not underestimating the challenge, but we will find a way," he said.
Fort Monroe lies in Rigell's district. He's part of a bipartisan group of Virginia lawmakers and residents clamoring to turn the current home of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command â€” which includes a moated fort that once imprisoned former Confederate President Jefferson Davis â€” into a national park when the Army pulls out in September.
Proponents contend that turning the fort into a national park would provide a sorely needed urban national park to tell slavery's story while also helping to boost the local economy. The National Park Service is in charge of several historic sites across the country, many of which are big tourist draws.
Ownership of the fort is being transferred to Virginia, but turning it into a state park was never seriously considered. Fort Monroe Authority Chairwoman Terrie Suit said Virginia never developed cost estimates for such a plan because it likely would be too expensive.
"We feel very strongly that there's a nationally significant story that needs to be told and that story can best be told by the National Park Service," she said.
Thousands of Virginia residents and historic preservationists across the nation agreed in comments submitted to the National Park Service during a three-week period that ended Tuesday, said National Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson. The park service also held public hearings in Hampton attended by hundreds of supporters, many of whom had personal connections to the base and fear the state would never be able to afford to maintain it.
"It's a national treasure and we need to preserve it and share it. I don't want to see it disappear," said Hampton resident Polly Siemann, whose husband and children once worked at the fort. "I don't think the city or the state has the funding to actually do the preservation, and so I would guess that it would be developed and maybe we'd see a few high-rises there which would really be a tragedy."
In addition to being the spot where the first slaves made landfall in 1619 at Old Point Comfort, the fort served as a refuge for runaway slaves during the Civil War. The fort's commander classified slaves who were able to reach Union lines as contraband of war beginning in 1861, meaning they wouldn't be returned to their Confederate owners.
Virginia officials imagine the fort complementing other nearby historic treasures that are tourist favorites, such as Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown Battlefield and the Jamestown Settlement. But they also imagine the peninsula being an active community. The base includes miles of beaches, a marina, a bowling alley and athletics fields. New mixed-used developments could also be built on land the state intends to keep managing as part of the proposed partnership with the National Park Service. It is a partnership fully supported by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.