What did Mary Bomar, as director of the Park Service's Northeast Region, know about plans to lease a clutch of 36 Colonial Revival buildings at Fort Hancock at the Gateway National Recreation Area to a private developer, and what role, if any, did she play in that deal?
I ask that because of the ramifications it could produce down the road throughout the entire national park system.
What needs to be determined, but which members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee apparently didn't consider significant when they questioned Mary during her confirmation hearing, is whether the incoming director of the National Park Service believes turning over portions of the national park system to private interests is good management of the national park system?
That's exactly what is being done at Fort Hancock, for a period of 60 years.
The more I hear about this deal, the less I like it. Because the Park Service can't afford to maintain historic buildings at Fort Hancock, which had a long history of guarding the New York Harbor, it decided to let a developer turn 36 of them into a variety of for-profit ventures with the Park Service getting a cut of the action.
Now, as I understand it, this debacle was sent on its course before Mary became regional director. It was one of her predecessors, Marie Rust, who approved it. But it does seem that Mary had more than one opportunity -- not to mention political support from senators who opposed this deal -- to alter, if not outright cancel, this transference of public property to private hands for at least the next six decades.
You see, this transaction wasn't easily consummated.
Time and again developer James Wassel -- who three years ago told reporters the entire restoration project would be done by 2006 -- was granted extensions by the Park Service, which in 1999 first sought private interests to move into Fort Hancock, so he could find somebody to finance his $80-$90 million dreams. Well, it seems he finally has accomplished that task through Palisades Financial LLC, a Fort Lee, New Jersey, company.
That's good news for Mr. Wassel, but perhaps not the best for the park system. As the Atlanticville newspaper reported last week, the CEO of Palisades Financial boasted that the Fort Hancock project "would be a model" for what could be done throughout the national park system when the Park Service doesn't "have the funds for fixing."
So, again, I have to wonder what Mary Bomar knows about this deal and what role she played in making it happen? If she thinks it's the best thing that could happen for Fort Hancock, then what does she think of Palisades Financial's position that it could help with similar projects throughout the park system?
Perhaps some insight into her thoughts might be gleaned from reviewing responses she provided the Senate committee that pondered her nomination. When told that "some NPS partners ... feel that their work is not being viewed or treated with respect," and then asked what steps she will "take to restore the climate of mutual respect between the National Park Service and its private partners," Mary responded that:
"If I am confirmed, I can assure you that the NPS will continue to be actively engaged in the work of partners, assisting them in meeting mutually agreed-upon goals and recognizing the value their work brings to the NPS and the American people. ... Training for NPS personnel, frequently done in league with our partners, will continue to build a culture of partnership in all fields and at all levels."
Of course, partnerships with foundations, such as the Yellowstone Park Foundation or Friends of Acadia, are one thing when the focus is the national park system. Partnerships with corporate America and private developers is something totally different.
Back in February I posted a piece on how Congress has turned The Presidio into a de facto commercial enterprise by demanding that it turn a profit. With the current deal-making under way at Fort Hancock, and the well-noted financial plights of park units as diverse as Gettysburg and Apostle Islands and Valley Forge and Dinosaur National Monument, how long will it be before Congress urges Mary to work out more deals similar to the one involving Fort Hancock?
And if that question is asked, how willing will Mary be to get into deal-making, rather than taking a stand that the parks belong to the American people and should not be privatized? Hopefully next week, after she's sworn in, Mary will be willing to field some of these questions.