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A national park for Fort Monroe
FORT MONROE has outlived its usefulness as a military installation, according to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. But the 570-acre fort, whose history stretches back to the early 1600s and includes epic events in the formation and growth of our nation, has a bright and prosperous future as one of Virginia's premiere tourism attractions, education centers and recreational parks - if local, state and federal leaders do not let the opportunity slip away.
In recent days, several key reports have been released that are likely to play critical roles in determining what will become of Fort Monroe when the U.S. Army departs in three years.
Among them is a preliminary reuse plan generated by the Fort Monroe Federal Area Development Authority, an 18-member group composed primarily of officials from the city of Hampton and state government.
The plan contains good news for those who grasp the tremendous economic potential in the fort's historic and recreational assets. All but gone is the assumption - widespread in the months after the announcement of Fort Monroe's pending shutdown - that the base's open spaces must be heavily developed to pay for upkeep of the property and offset the effect of the base's closure on the Hampton economy.
The authority's consultants estimate annual maintenance costs would be about $4 million, far below the Army's initial projections of $14 million. The consultants also predict that Fort Monroe's history could attract 100,000 to 150,000 visitors annually and that its beachfront another 115,000 to 125,000.
There isn't quite as much cause for celebration in a long-anticipated "reconnaissance study" by the National Park Service. Not surprisingly, the agency concluded that the fort is "an exceptionally important portal" through which to examine our nation's history and is "worthy of preservation and protection." Equally unsurprising is the conclusion that the cash-strapped agency is in no hurry to take on the job of preservation and protection.
The Park Service's report recommends that Congress delay authorization of "a Special Resource Study," a more comprehensive review that could lead to national park designation, until a reuse plan is approved by the redevelopment authority and by others engaged in the process.
Two major challenges now face local, state and federal leaders who recognize Fort Monroe's rich but little-known history and can envision the day when it could join Colonial Williamburg, Jamestown and Yorktown as major attractions.
The obstacles, bluntly put, are (a) Fort Monroe is not likely to achieve its potential without the expertise, resources and reputation of the National Park Service and (b) the National Park Service is unlikely to become part of the project unless others contribute large sums of money.
In a meeting with The Pilot editorial board last week, Gov. Tim Kaine re-stated his administration's commitment to preserving the fort's historic assets, broadening public access to the site and laying the groundwork for a self-sustaining operation. He said "revenue maximization" - i.e., selling or leasing open spaces for development - "should not be goal one." That's good news.
Kaine, understandably, is unwilling to dip into the state's treasury to help Fort Monroe build a partnership with the National Park Service. But Kaine and the General Assembly should be willing to marshal support from a wide range of groups - the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Civil War Preservation Trust and the National Parks Conservation Association, among others - to begin building a permanent funding mechanism for Fort Monroe. A similar venture has succeeded at The Presidio, a former military installation added to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area almost 15 years ago.
Fort Monroe has many stories to tell - stories about, among others, Capt. John Smith, Chief Black Hawk, the Monitor and the Merrimac, Edgar Allan Poe, Jefferson Davis, Harriet Tubman and three enslaved men, Frank Baker, Sheppard Mallory and James Townsend, whose brave actions at the fort played a direct role in the Emancipation Proclamation.
But none of those stories will be told as effectively or reach as broad an audience unless the National Park Service is involved in the next stage of Fort Monroe's history, unless preservation groups commit resources to establishing a public trust for its protection, and unless local, state and federal leaders unite in the obvious - creating Fort Monroe National Park.