Saturday, October 04, 2008

The NPS, the Museum, and the Foundation

We have always been, and remain, unabashed defenders of the National Park Service staff at Gettysburg National Military Park. We have been supporters of the Foundation.

When we look at the accomplishments of the NPS under the direction of Doctor John Latschar, we see the enormous reconstitution of the Battlefield proper, with the crowning piece yet to come this winter when the old Visitors Center and the Cyclorama Building will be torn down and Zeigler's Grove restored.

The masterful work, fastidiously researched since the early 1990s, and remarkably performed since the plan went into effect in the late 1990s, has not only opened broad new vistas on the Battlefield, but has forced historians to re-open the history books to reinterpret some phases of the Battle. Over the 145 years since the great Battle was fought here, the field itself underwent countless changes, many of which were man made. But nature made more than a few changes also and over the course of time, those changes were not only allowed to remain, but became part of the physical context within which the historical accounts of what happened here were written. Certainly, historians could easily "write their way around" the presence of a Pizza Hut, or a Tourist shop located on the main Battlefield, but not so easily done were the subtle changes wrought by nature.

One example is the tree thinning on Oak Hill. This has an effect on the way the July 1st actions of one Confederate Brigade are recorded in the history books. Once there was puzzlement about O'Neal's Brigade being so easily rebuffed because they were only under fire for a few hundred yards. Now, we see that they were under fire far longer...a view from the fresh perspective of the removal of several hundred yards of non-historic trees.

Another example was the clearing several years ago of the south slope of Little Round Top, exposing the flank markers of the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment mere yards from Warren Avenue at the pull-offs near its top. No longer will "Old Pennsylvania" have a role in a "line of battle" ringing the crest of that hill. Now we look at a more sophisticated defensive position, a defense in depth, complete with angles of fire that cover inviting avenues of approach by the enemy.

In 10 to 15 years, most of the orchards that have been freshly planted in the past few years will have matured to the point where they will be recognized as places of shelter, and cover, for many of the troops during the Battle. In 20-25 years the oak and other hardwood groves that have been planted will also mature, as will additional plantings in Ziegler's Grove.

But even after the Park Service completes its Battlefield restoration, it will still not be exactly the way it was on those three fateful days in July of 1863. Of course, the monuments and markers were not present, nor were the traffic signs, paved roadways and paths. The view from inside the Battlefield looking out certainly has changed dramatically, both in the borough, and the two townships that surround the major portions of the Battlefield. And as for nature, the ground cover and underbrush that for the most part was wholly absent from the area in 1863 because of all the grazing livestock, both fenced and free range, will still remain because it will be far too expensive to clear it, and far too dangerous to introduce enough livestock to do it for us.

In the end, Gettysburg Battlefield will be nearly as pristine as the Battlefield at Antietam is now -- the only intrusions will be development on the edges of the Borough and from the surrounding townships, something, somehow, avoided all these years at Antietam.

Now we have a new Visitors Center -- an absolutely stunning structure reminiscent of many Adams County barns, and perfectly situated. The design architect is to be commended for creating a building aesthetically superb, and majestically sited.

So, what is wrong with this picture?

The Borough and the Townships
Ever since the Battle was fought, the Borough has been at odds with itself over its role in the memorialization of what happened here. The Borough's love-hate relationship with the Park is a product of its love-hate relationship with its role in history. For better or for worse, the Borough was indeed a part of the great Battle. It wasn't fought just around the Borough, but inside as well. For four days and nights the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia occupied its streets and buildings, sometimes fighting from them, sometimes launching attacks from them. A week before the Battle started the Rebels were in town demanding money and supplies. And after the Battle was over, the residents took in the wounded, and helped bury the dead. For months afterwards there was a military presence here. And of course, the Great Emancipator came here to say a few words at the dedication of one of the first National Cemeteries in this country. His words left a second indelible mark on Gettysburg.

This is also true for the townships that surround the Battlefield: Mount Joy on the southeast side of the Borough, Cumberland to the south and west, and north of the Borough, and Straban, also north and east of the Borough. Those municipalities were the context for the battle. It occurred in all four locations. The hospitals that were set up after the battle were spread throughout all four municipalities.

For 145 years many of the residents of the Borough and surrounding townships have been making their livelihoods from the Battle. Indeed, tourism is the largest industry in Adams County, matched nearly by the declining fruit industry.

The only one of the four municipalities that has any kind of participatory plan in conjunction with the Park Service to preserve and memorialize the events that made Gettysburg famous is the Borough itself, and its plan is nothing to brag about. The Borough is starting to get it. They have very grudgingly worked their way into allowing the Park Service to restore the David Wills house on the Diamond [For all you geometrists, the official name of Gettysburg's square is the Diamond, even though it has a traffic circle.], and to taking over the "Lincoln" Train Station. The Borough found itself incapable of managing, or even deciding what to do with the train station. In turn, the Park Service has agreed to allow bus service from an as-yet-to-be-built bus terminal across the tracks from the Train Station to the new Visitor's Center.

Several years ago the Borough's Historic Architectural Review Board [HARB] ran a Sheetz convenience store/gas station out of town over its store frontage, and allowed another business to move in eventually. The gas tanks were removed. But drive by today and see the enormous gas tanks sitting there waiting to be stuck in the ground, and look at the store frontage and ask yourself, "Is this any different than Sheetz?"

The townships, on the other hand, never met a patch of grass they didn't want to pave over. Cumberland Township recently cleared scrub trees and excavated part of their side yard to "stabilize the ground", even though they claim they have no plans to put anything there. So why dig it up? It was stable the way it was. Township officials have their toys and they must play with them. Perhaps seeing a bulldozer plowing up a beautiful lawn is somehow erotically stimulating to them. Cumberland also granted permission for a new hotel to be built between the Pike restaurant and the Evergreen Cemetery on Baltimore Street south of town. The excavation came less than two feet from the outermost row of headstones. A good heavy rain or two at that point in time might have created a moving experience for some of those interred there.

Even worse, is Straban, which began with a Wal Mart Distribution Center, then a super Wal Mart, then a Casino, all of which were somehow defeated by local opposition and bad planning, and now, thanks to their grim determination to build over some of the most scenic and beautiful and productive farmland in America, will bring a Lowes, a Super Wal Mart, and other box stores to the strip of ground between the southbound exit of US 15 at York Street and the hotel at the first light, across from where Sheetz ended up after being run out of town. We call what Straban Township is doing along US 30 [York Street], the "Neonization of Gettysburg." We call the planned housing and development along US 15 north and south of the US 30 interchange, the "Uglification of Gettysburg."

They are all destroying the context of what brings the most money into this area.

Steinwehr Avenue and the Shrinking Share
The Merchants of sounds almost Shakespearean. It is drama, but not of the Bard's caliber. For years, the Borough allowed business after business to be built along the strip of the old Emmitsburg Road leading to Baltimore Street, renamed for the 11th Corps General whose Division guarded that particular section of Cemetery Hill on July 1, 2, and 3. They thrived for a while because of the renewed interest in Civil War history and in Gettysburg in particular due to the Movie Gettysburg released in the mid 1990s. Location is almost everything in business, particularly small business, and they were literally located across the street from the Visitors Center and Cyclorama Parking lot entrances. Farther up towards town they were across from the National Cemetery. But over the years the Borough saw its own revenues from the Merchants of Steinwehr begin to decline a bit. Part of the problem was the waning interest in Gettysburg and the Civil War. Another, more recent part, was the increase in the price of travel, particularly gas, after the September 11, 2001 attacks. As the economy struggled for a while and gas prices rose, people stopped making the trip.

But more insidious was the Shrinking Share. How many t-shirt shops are on Steinwehr? How many ghost tour operators? How many "museums"? How many trinket/souvenir shops are there on Steinwehr? With a declining economy, and too many businesses, the tourist dollar shares were becoming smaller and smaller. Frankly, we think this a natural consequence of over-saturation of the retail tourist market. 50% of all small businesses fail in their first five years, a percentage that increases to 70% over the first ten years. Add in the effects of the new Visitors Center and its move east to Baltimore Street away from the Merchants of Steinwehr, and you can see why the businesses are not doing well. Heck, the whole economy has generated a $700 billion bailout bill from Congress. We are in tough economic times. The strong businesses will survive, and perhaps now Steinwehr Avenue won't resemble a carnival midway so much with the tourist traps hawking their wares on their front porches and sidewalks. Survival of the fittest is seldom fair to the naked eye, but in the long run, it is what made the Apes eventually stand on two feet, and later become Man. Perhaps it will generate a chance for the Borough to redo their license, tax and fee structure. While they are at it, they need to take out the parking meters throughout the Borough, and perhaps build a second parking garage, across Chambersburg Street from the existing one behind the Gettysburg Hotel. Nothing drives away the tourists from down town faster than parking meters and meter maids. Add a sur-tax to the businesses to cover any shortfall.

The NPS, the Museum, and the Foundation
As it turns out, it is the partnership from Hell. It was a worthy enterprise, a public-private partnership that touted a new Visitors Center [see above] without using public money. Yes, that's right, no tax money. Yet tens of millions of dollars of tax money wound up being used. And that doesn't count the approximate $5 million used solely for the clean-up and restoration of the Cyclorama painting. When questioned about this recently in the Hanover Evening Sun, Foundation Chairman Bob Wilburn was totally unapologetic. In fact, he was more than that. In our mind, he came across arrogant, surly, and, dare we say it, snottily elitist - sort of an attitude of "You can't afford to even talk to me!" His salary of over $350,000 per year is one indication why so many millions of tax dollars ended up in the new Visitors Center: What were the rest of the salaries?

Prices in the Book Store are double what you would find in other Civil War Battlefield Book Stores. That is, the trinkets and souvenirs are double. The books arrive with prices printed on their covers and dust jackets, so there is no surcharge on them. The deal with the Builder, Kinsley Construction of York, Pennsylvania, is that Kinsley gets to own the new Visitors Center for 22 years, after which sole ownership will revert to the Park Service [read: U.S. Government, read: U.S. Taxpayers]. That is supposed to be the length of time that Kinsley needs to be taking a cut off the profits from all operations in the Visitors Center to pay for the construction of the center itself. The Park Service and the Foundation manage it for Kinsley. That keeps Foundation people getting those huge salaries.

Those payments are falling short of the mark already, and no wonder in these ugly economic times. The same thing is happening to the NPS-Kinsley deal that is happening to the Merchants of Steinwehr. Their slice of the tourist dollar is shrinking. Oh, but there is more. Originally, the Visitors Center was charging $12 to adults to see the 20 minute film "A New Birth of Freedom", and the Cyclorama Painting. The Museum was free. Now, after much hand wringing and a sham of a survey, the price has dropped to $7.50 for all three venues. People are outraged at having to pay to see the museum. The survey was conducted by the Foundation with its members. The proposed fee change was the subject of the survey. The members of the Foundation responded supposedly with over 50% support. However, also included in the mail that brought the survey, was news that all Foundation members have a free ride to all the venues on the park. While that might not qualify as bribery, it certainly voids the survey, making it worthless.

Let's compare to Antietam, site of the bloodiest single day in American Military History, and a scant 90 minutes from here. A pristine Battlefield, and a small visitors center are the joys of Antietam. You are asked to pay a $6 fee to visit the tiny museum downstairs, but nobody checks your ticket. The films are free. There is a 20 minute film about Lincoln's visit to McClellan after the battle that doesn't go far enough in detailing the humiliation of our then-Commander in Chief by the General and his staff, in front of the troops. There is a magnificent 40 minute telling of the battle story, narrated by James Earl Jones, and filled with action battle scenes not stolen from other films, but created with the help of thousands of reenactors just for this film. It is superbly done, complete with graphics that starkly show the tactics and flow of the battle. It opens with a long line of Confederate soldiers wading across the late summer Potomac River from Virginia to Maryland a few days before the battle. With this one well done scene, which depicts the soldiers joking their way across the stream while holding their possessions high and dry, and battle sequences showing how units would fight facing one enemy line and eventually come under fire from another in their rear, taking fierce casualties in the encounter, the action is fierce and realistic. For amateur actors, it is well done. The scene that most affected us, and still does, is when the lead brigade marches over the rise in front of the Sunken Lane, then the Rebs open fire, and the entire front rank of the brigade goes down. It is filmmaking at its best, lovingly done, and it accurately depicts how the battle became the single bloodiest day in American History.

At Gettysburg, the film, "A New Birth of Freedom," narrated by Morgan Freeman, is a well done film giving context to the Battle here. However, it is not worth the price of admission, and should, rather, play in the entrance hallway for free. The Cyclorama is well worth the price of admission, and at $7.50 the price is low enough to be deserving, and high enough to maintain a flow of profit to repay Mr. Kinsley.

We believe the museum should be free.

And should the flow of money from the Visitors Center to Mr. Kinsley take more than the 22 years agreed upon, then perhaps Mr. Kinsley would agree to an extension of several years. How about rounding it up to 25? Meanwhile, the park has the room, and the expertise, to add another venue that will draw visitors, and make money. They can restore the electric map, or build a newer, better one, and put it in one of their theaters. We think there may be sufficient skilled volunteers to do just that. Take the price of the Cyclorama and the Electric Map to $10 for either or both, but remove the fee for the museum, if for no other reason than the fact that those artifacts belong to every American. They should not have to pay to see what they already own.

We do support the NPS Staff at Gettysburg. They are a marvelous, hard working group of folks. They have nearly completed a fantastic journey where they have taken the Battlefield back 145 years into the past, and they have done it lovingly and with accuracy. They have established a benchmark for battlefield restoration that should serve as a model for the entire world.

We would hope that the Foundation regains its footing and its senses and climbs down from yuppiedom to walk once again with the people who are the salt of the earth, the Average Joe and his family, the people who walk through the doors of the Visitors Center to spend that $7.50. The Foundation has served its purpose of raising the funds for the Visitors Center. Let us now see some daylight between the Foundation and the Park. We would love to write a glowing reference for Mr. Wilburn to add to his resume.

There are two people who deserve a great deal of thanks for this effort: Kinsley, for his generosity in floating a long term loan to the Park Service, and Doctor Latschar for his vision and perseverance in developing the plan to restore the Battlefield to its 1863 condition, and to bring us the new Visitors Center: Kudos to both.


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Anonymous said...

Don't be so quick to thank the park superintendent or Kinsley or for that matter, the former Friends (now the Foundation). Much of this was predicted in the early discourse of this byzantine scheme of Dr. Latchstar (have you considered the past "development" he pushed?).

Anyhow, the issue at hand is the solution for the future. As in the national econcomy and the current bailout situation (an artificial attempt to correct a free market situation that should have been let alone to "run it's course), the current situation needs to run it's course. Yes, fees can be increased, but in previous posts here under "anonymous" I alluded to miscalculations/misunderstandings by the Foundation. Maybe Lincoln's quote on the pig suckling it's young should have been used. Simply the cash inflow cannot match the outflow! This ain't Disneyworld (YET).

If the national economy will permit it, you will see accelerated commercial development surrounding the borough in the townships, as a means to attract sufficient visitor volume into the area to bolster the pleadings of the Foundation to keep their venues solvent (don't forget how the groundwork for this has already been laid through the three distinct groups--Kinsley, the Friends and the NPS that now make up the foundation). Maybe we all would have been better off letting Monahan build his vision. At least with a singular person, with a single goal, these issues would not be rearing their head now.

What I'm seeing in my view from afar is a situation developing that can be a detrimental as the casino would have been. I hope I am wrong. Maybe with the current credit situation, we may again see the battlefield cleansed like on July 4th, 1863. Until then, hold on to your fondest memories, because the cows (should I say pigs) are out of the barn and either they will florish and reproduce or they will die off. If they florish, you will never see the area as the same. If they die off, then it's another Steamtown.