Conflict at Gettysburg, again Money: Despite criticism, the Park Service is joining with commercial interests to improve services at the deteriorating Civil War battlefield. The government is adding $1 million.

Sun Journal

January 29, 1998|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- It's amazing what an extra million dollars -- and then $40 million -- will do for your outlook, short and long term.

To John A. Latschar, superintendent at Gettysburg National Military Park, the additional million Congress put in his kitty means he can mount significant rescue operations this year on the eroding and corroding monuments and deteriorating historic structures scattered across the 5,900-acre Civil War battlefield park.

The $40 million is a long-range proposition -- a new Visitors Center to be erected by a private consortium and operated as a commercial venture by a nonprofit foundation. The new center is expected to open in 2003; when the debt is amortized, in about 25 years, it will become Park Service property.

The partnership is a departure from tradition, Latschar says, and if it works as planned it could be a model for future national park projects.

The new center will be on a privately owned 45-acre tract just off the Baltimore Pike a mile from the town center, a site where no action occurred during the epic three-day battle in July 1863.

It will house the panoramic Cyclorama painting of the battle, a museum, theater, offices, an eating place, book and gift shops -- and, at last, adequate space for the restoration, conservation and storage of the vast collection of Civil War artifacts housed now in technically primitive conditions.

Saturday and again Feb. 14, the public will be invited for the first time to see just how primitive the current facilities are on tours of the storage areas of the present Visitors Center, where equipment and weapons are rotting and rusting despite the best efforts of conservationists.

"I am very optimistic about the future of Gettysburg," says Latschar, who has been superintendent for 3 1/2 years at the largest and most-visited (nearly 2 million tourists annually) of the nation's 24 Civil War parks. Last year, he and other park rangers were downright pessimistic.

Government budgets simply cannot meet National Park Service needs. An estimated $6 billion maintenance backlog has forced the service to become creative and to enter into partnerships with private entities to get things done despite some criticism about "commercialization."

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt traveled to Gettysburg in November to see the preservation problems for himself. He said of the public-private partnership plan: "I'm sure it's the way to go."

Walter Powell, president of the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association, opposes private financing. Congressional action "at the highest level" is needed to attack the problems, he says: "We shouldn't be selling the American heritage to the highest bidder."

But as long as public purse strings remain tight, private financing is the only practical alternative, says Vickie Greenlee, executive director of Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, a 16,000-member educational organization.

"Our commercialization will be limited to the bookstore, the educational and interpretive movie, limited food service, the library and research facility," says Robert A. Kinsley, the York, Pa., developer-builder who heads the consortium for the new Visitors Center.

Latschar points out that the Park Service already has entered into several successful partnerships to save historic structures, including the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and the Ellis Island immigration center and the conversion of the Presidio and Fort Mason in San Francisco to commercial uses. It also has commercial concessionaires at its large western parks.

"We will have far less commercial activity than you can find in the parks that have concessions," the Gettysburg superintendent says. "We keep trying to point out that we are going the way all our major museums and public institutions have gone."

Latschar has already launched a partnership arrangement at Gettysburg, the "Adopt-A-Position" program, like the well-known adopt-a-highway project.

So far, he says, 157 private groups, including numerous Civil War re-enactors, have volunteered to spruce up 239 of the battlefield's 417 positions -- for example a monument, artillery or infantry site, point of battle -- twice a year.

Opening Gettysburg to such groups has produced a corps of volunteers eager to help, he says. "They have a sense of pride and commitment."

Fifteen organizations have raised enough money to repair monuments in their adopted sections, and three of them have raised enough to establish permanent maintenance endowments for their chosen monuments. That leaves hundreds of monuments without specific support and still vulnerable to the elements.

After publicity last year about the dire conditions at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum prodded Congress, which increased Gettysburg's base operating budget by $1.052 million, to $4.674 million. Latschar says it will permit him to undertake conservation work he once thought beyond his grasp.

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