After years of waiting, officials at the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine are moving forward with plans for a new education center that they hope will be ready for the bicentennial of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in 2014.
Fort McHenry administrators will travel to Washington this month to meet with National Park Service officials to discuss plans to replace the current 5,000-square-foot education center at Fort McHenry, which almost from the day it opened in 1964 was too small to handle the thousands of history buffs and tourists who come to see the birthplace of the national anthem.
Forty years later, due in part to a rise in patriotism after Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq, the fort is even more popular, drawing about 600,000 visitors a year. However, cramped quarters mean that some never see a video about the Battle of Baltimore, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem.
An expansion of the education center has been in the National Park System's master plan since 1968. But hurdles, including a winding bureaucratic process and a $5.6 billion maintenance backlog, have delayed the project. Now, plans call for the center to be replaced by a facility at least double its size.
School groups, which tend to include more children than the 70-seat auditorium can handle, are most often excluded from seeing the video.
"It's one of the first things I noticed," said John McKenna, a deputy superintendent at Gettysburg National Military Park, who will assume the top job at the fort June 1. "Wow, how do you get 600,000 visitors here and only have a theater that seats 70?"
During his nine years at the Civil War battlefield in Pennsylvania, McKenna supervised planning for a $95 million visitors center. He said a new educational center at Fort McHenry will be his top priority. "I can't wait to get started," he said.
Initial reports, including a survey of archaeological finds and transportation needs, are expected to be completed next month. A public meeting will be held later to discuss the reports.
"We know that when there is an anniversary coming up like this one, we need to start planning," said Edie Shean-Hammond, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, northeastern region. "We take a good deal of time to make sure we do it right."
A fund-raising effort by the Patriots of Fort McHenry, a nonprofit organization that supports the historical site in conjunction with the Living Classrooms Foundation, will begin as soon as an architect produces a sketch or model of the new structure.
Though Congress has not approved funding for the project, Fort McHenry supporters hope that it will allocate most of the money to build the center. Proponents for the center will seek financial aid from local government, businesses and industries, as well.
At an early stage in the planning process, it is unclear how much the new center will cost. About $200,000 has been spent so far, officials said.
"We hope everyone will participate," said John Kellett, director of the Patriots of Fort McHenry. "We want a facility that everyone can be proud of."
The current facility is outdated and crowded. Handicapped-accessible bathrooms are located outside at the bottom of the parking lot, there is no room for large interpretive displays, and some staff members are housed in the star-shaped fort because there is not enough room in the education center.
The location of the existing center - directly in front of the 19th-century fort - is also unfortunate, McKenna said. The new center could be moved closer to a water taxi stop on the harbor side of the peninsula to create a better view of the fort.
Something that won't change is a dramatic video presentation that tells the story of "The Star-Spangled Banner." At the end of the video, a stunning view of the flag flying over the fort is revealed as audience members sing the national anthem, many of them in tears.
Said Kellett: "We all feel that that is a patriotic experience that we should try to preserve in the new center."