Two-hundred-and-fifty million dollars buys an awful lot of museum. But does that mean the latest proposal to "save" some of the private land surrounding Harpers Ferry National Historical Park from development is a good one?
The short answer, at this point, is it's just too soon to tell, as the National Park Service has yet to see a formal proposal that outlines the project that includes not just the museum but also a hotel and convention center. What is troubling, though, is that the developers behind this project apparently want the federal government to fund most, if not all, of the $250 million museum complex.
Stonewall Heights, LLC, a group for which I've been unable so far to locate an address or phone number for, apparently has met with U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, to inquire about the possibility of federal funding. Calls to the senator's press secretary Friday afternoon went unanswered.
One person who did answer his phone, though, was Donald Campbell, superintendent of the Harper's Ferry park. A soft-spoken man whose reputation for working tirelessly for the national parks and finding ways to work with various stakeholders was rewarded recently with the National Parks Conservation Association's Stephen T. Mather Award, Superintendent Campbell told me he's equally curious about the proposal.
"This is a proposal that's been made. But there have been no meetings held with the National Park Service on this proposal at this point," he said. "I'm sure those meetings will take place at some point. I don't think there have been any meetings with the conservation community, to my knowledge."
Some have seen this latest proposal -- and that's all it is, a proposal, not a done deal as some earlier reports indicated -- as a white knight of sorts for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. That's because a previous developer had been planning to turn the so-called Old Standard Quarry into a commercial center with millions of square feet of office and retail space.
Plus, the latest proposal would package some additional private parcels to prevent them from being developed.
When Jim Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust, heard of the proposal the other week, he showered it with praise.
"This is a fantastic ending to what could easily have been a catastrophe for one of the most picturesque national parks in the country," he said. "My hat is off to the development group that has made this win-win solution possible. It is further evidence that preservation and development are not mutually exclusive, especially when both sides communicate in good faith."
But is this a win-win solution?
While this proposal calls for the museum, hotel, and conference center to also be placed within the Old Standard Quarry, Superintendent Campbell said there are a number of differences between the two proposals,
"I think the principal thing that is different between this proposal and the previous one, the previous proposal would have put in a 2.3-million-square-foot commercial development. That's the size of 12-and-a-half aircraft carriers," he said. "It would have preserved none of the land, simply scraped off the mountain top and put all the buildings in there. Whereas this one, in terms of what they're talking about -- and granted, it's all preliminary at this point -- they're talking about two buildings, one is the Museum of the National Park Service, and there is a hotel and conference center. Both of those in terms of square footage are probably more in the order of maybe 300,000 square feet, as opposed to 2.3 million square feet.
"And they're talking about donating easements over the entire property that would maintain its scenic value. So, that aspect sounds encouraging if one is weighing one against the other."
There are other intriguing details, such as that the proposed museum would house not just a museum devoted to the NPS but also one to house artifacts from other national park sites within the agency's national capital region, such as Antietam National Battlefield and Manassas National Battlefield. Plus, the developer apparently believes the museum can, in essence, be built underground and thus preserve the above-ground setting.
"They have a very prominent architect as part of their project team who has ideas of how this museum could be set into the hillside, or the mountaintop if you will, and then once it's finished the natural contour of the land would be restored over the top of the building and reforested," said Superintendent Campbell, who didn't think, from what he's seen so far, that any Civil War battlefields would be impacted.
All that said, there should be concerns with this proposal that need to be assuaged. Why is a $250 million museum being proposed? That price tag suggests something palatial, and certainly that's the last thing the National Park Service needs at this point, it's $8 billion maintenance backlog notwithstanding.
And really, if a congressman or senator can justify $250 million for a museum project, why can't they also justify better funding for the Park Service across the board? Two-hundred-and-fifty million dollars would hire a lot of rangers, seasonal and full-time, and probably negate the need for entrance fees, just to name two areas that need attention. It also no doubt would take care of the restoration of the Fort Hancock quarters that the Park Service is leasing to a private developer.
Going forward, if this proposal shows some life, that $250 million figure should be pared down, and the federal government shouldn't be expect to underwrite all of it. Too, according to media reports, a tram would be built to carry visitors to the museum. That's an idea that Superintendent Campbell is not sure would mesh with his park.
"I think in their preliminary concepts that that's what's in their proposal, and I think that would be one of the things that would get vetted out if they went forward," he said. "In my opinion -- I haven't seen any design or anything -- it would seem to be an inappropriate thing."
It was just a few weeks ago that I was in Austin, Texas, attending the National Park Foundation's Leadership Summit on Partnership and Philanthropy. One of the speakers at that conference was Rebecca Rimel, president and chief executive officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts. One of the things Ms. Rimel told me was that she wouldn't be surprised if someone stepped forward with a gift of $200 million for the national park system, and that it very likely would come with some strings attached.
Once such a gift was offered, she said, the National Park Service would have to weigh the "strings" against the benefits of such a hefty donation.
“It’s like any investment decision, you need to understand the terms of the deal and make sure that they’re acceptable to you. But the notion that someone is going to basically turn over those kinds of resources, or any resources of substantial size with no strings I think is unrealistic,” Ms. Rimel told me.
“They’ll (the Park Service) have to determine what the expectations are and whether they think they can meet them and whether they should meet them. And if the answer to both of those is yes, then that’s the best of all worlds. In all of these there’s some give and take.”
In the case of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, the latest offer on the table has been made, as Superintendent Campbell made clear to me, by a group of investors. Investors don't look to give things away without gaining something, something usually more valuable, in return.
What the Park Service and its various stakeholders will have to chew on in the coming months is what the investors are looking to gain in return and whether they can live with that.
"Right now, all I see is an idea," Superintendent Campbell told me. "Until this idea has been vetted with the National Park Service, with the conservation community, the Civil War community, all of the public interest groups and individuals that would have interest in commenting on this thing, I think that's all it is, an idea.
"Does it have potential? It certainly is a step in the right direction based on what we were facing here four months ago. Is it the solution? I don't know."