Park Service takeover of Fort Monroe carries uncertainties
By Kate Wiltrout
NORFOLK - The federal park service falls $800 million short of the money it needs to operate 391 parks, monuments and recreational areas each year, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.
Sites across the United States are feeling the pinch, the association said. At Everglades National Park in Florida, 25 scientist positions are unfilled. At the Grand Canyon, the National Park Service has trouble keeping restrooms clean. And at Alaska's Denali National Park, a 22-person road crew has been whittled to a single employee.
So why do local history buffs want to see Fort Monroe added to the park service roster when the Army leaves? And why would an overburdened agency want responsibility for 175 more historic buildings, half a million square feet of office space and Confederate President Jefferson Davis' ornately carved pipe?
A long-awaited park service study released Tuesday bolstered assertions some have made since 2005, when the government announced Fort Monroe would close: The site has unparalleled historic assets that must be preserved. The Army will leave in 2011.
But that alone is not enough to warrant the involvement of the National Park Service. It takes a majority vote in Congress or a declaration of the president to create a national park, battlefield or historic site.
Getting that designation would be just the beginning of an ongoing battle for money to maintain buildings, pay rangers' salaries and build exhibits.
Last month, about a dozen local citizens and officials working on the base's transition journeyed to two spots similar to Fort Monroe - Governors Island, in New York Harbor, and Fort Hancock, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area in New Jersey.
One venue served as a possible role model; the other, as a cautionary tale. Fort Hancock was home to soldiers from 1898 until 1974, when the military village was turned over to the park service.
Its buildings have stood empty ever since.
"It was a sobering experience, sloshing from vacant building to vacant building in the pouring rain. It is just in terrible shape," said Bill Armbruster, executive director of the Fort Monroe Federal Area Development Authority.
Kathleen Kilpatrick, Virginia's historic preservation officer, saw the ghost of a future she doesn't want.
"It underscored what we all know in preservation, which is: 'Empty buildings are threatened buildings,' " said Kilpatrick, one of 18 authority members. "The budget reality is that the vast majority of the buildings at Fort Hancock stand empty - and very, very important buildings are deteriorating."
It's a different story on the 172-acre Governors Island, long occupied by the Army and then the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard left in 1996, and in 2003, the federal government sold the land to two parties, for a dollar.
The Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, jointly owned by the city and state, runs 150 acres; the park service manages the 22-acre Governors Island National Monument. Armbruster said the staff of five has a budget of $1.3 million - both sobering figures.
"That allows them minimal maintenance," Armbruster said. "As they indicated to us, they compete with 390 national parks for funding, and the new kid on the block goes to the bottom of the list."
Possession of Old Point Comfort, as the peninsula that's home to Fort Monroe is known, comes with strings attached - and the park service isn't willing to bear them alone, if at all.
The study concluded that the service should postpone further consideration of involvement until the property's future is more certain.
Armbruster is confident the park service will be involved at Fort Monroe.
"It did not rule out a cooperative effort in the future, once they see how the reuse plan plays out," he said. "Whether it's an oversight role or in a supporting role, they're going to be here in some fashion."
Some people want the National Park Service involved because they don't trust local and state officials to protect Fort Monroe's legacy in the face of pressure from developers, or the desire to turn a profit.
Others see a federal affiliation as a boost to tourism potential. The park service is a powerful "brand," and an economic stimulus in its own right.
Focus groups have shown that potential visitors believe national park properties will be of higher quality and offer more educational and recreational opportunities than other attractions.
Even without that designation, one consultant estimates, Fort Monroe could draw almost a quarter of a million visitors annually with little effort.
Economics Research Associates, a consultant for the development authority, projected that up to 150,000 people would visit Fort Monroe for its cultural attractions - including the moated stone fort and a museum that already exists below the fort's low-hanging, vaulted ceilings.
Another 125,000 visitors would be drawn to the beaches along the Chesapeake Bay, and open space for camping, jogging and bicycling, ERA predicted.
Those numbers pleased Louis Guy, the treasurer of Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park.
"Two and a half years ago, I was very much concerned that we were going to blow a wonderful opportunity," Guy said. The citizens group was born out of that concern, but Guy is more optimistic these days, even if the National Park Service isn't involved.
Guy, who also serves as president of the Norfolk Historical Society, said he sees a growing "constituency" of people who view Fort Monroe as a national treasure, not just a peninsula with a lot of waterfront property.
"I think the National Park Service is a brand that would be very appealing, but I'm not going to waste any time for the next six months worrying about it," Guy said.
"Six months or a year from now, we can come back to it. There are so many other things that are still a possibility."
That's essentially the conclusion of the study. The authors pointed out that other important cultural resources are successfully managed by other public agencies and private conservation organizations.
Unless direct park service management "is identified as the clearly superior alternative," the study said, it generally recommends that other entities assume a lead management role.
The service also concluded that even if a more intensive special resource study were carried out, it would be "unlikely" to find it feasible to manage the entire 570 acres.
Even a smaller park service role - such as managing the 63 acres inside the moat - would be unlikely without a strong, financially sustainable partner to help maintain the buildings, the study said.
Kilpatrick found those blunt statements telling.
"I think they've made it clear it is unlikely," she said.
She said the trips to Governors Island and Fort Hancock, as well as the study, reinforced a theme: the importance of thinking creatively and bringing public and private organizations together in preservation.
"This isn't a sprint, it's a long-distance race," she said. "And we must be thinking about getting buildings in active use from Day One, even on a temporary basis."
The enormous potential of Fort Monroe to become a place where some people live, others work and all can play might be the same thing that makes the park service hesitant to get involved.
"We've got a huge community out here," Armbruster said. "It's like taking on a small town."