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First Ladies National Historic Site Struggles to Attract Visitors


The Ida Saxton House, one of two historic structures preserved at First Ladies National Historic Site in Canton, Ohio. Wikimedia Commons photo.

First Ladies National Historic Site, which was established on October 11, 2000, has a prime location in Canton, Ohio, yet attracts scarcely more than 10,000 visitors a year. Why is that, and does it really matter?

There are lots of national parks, including not a few historic sites, whose annual attendance is low enough to raise eyebrows. These units are in the National Park System despite visitor appeal factors, not because of them. We justify their existence as national parks because of their intrinsic resources values, which may be nature-based, cultural/historical, or some combination thereof. These resources are nationally significant and must be preserved. The federal government should do it, and the National Park Service should be the managing agency. That’s the basic argument.

Does it matter if visitation is so low that it borders on embarrassment? Apparently not. Consider the case of First Ladies National Historic Site.

When First Ladies opened eight years ago today, it seemed reasonable to expect that visitation would grow as the public became aware of the park’s existence. This is what normally happens with a new attraction.

Canton, Ohio, is also a prime location. Ohio’s population is 11.5 million, Cleveland (population 452,000) is just a short drive away, and over half the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive. Another Canton, Ohio, attraction, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, has attracted over eight million visitors since it opened in 1963, including 201,148 last year alone.

Location, to put it bluntly, is absolutely no excuse. The reason few people visit First Ladies is because few people believe it’s worth the time and effort.

That’s a pity, actually. There’s a lot to like about First Ladies, especially if you are (like me) a history buff and historic preservationist.

First Ladies National Historic site honors the lives and accomplishments of all First Ladies throughout history -- in support of their spouses, and in their own right.

The park preserves two historic properties. The main one is the home of First Lady Ida Saxton McKinley. The other is the seven-story City National Bank Building (built 1895).

Built in 1841 and modified in 1865, the Ida Saxton House at 331 Market Avenue S. was the home of Ida Saxton McKinley, wife of U.S. President William McKinley. The handsome brick Victorian structure has been refurbished with attention to historic authenticity. If you have a fine eye for detail, you’ll like this preservation effort.

Costumed docents conduct tours of the house. There are museum exhibits that highlight the McKinleys’ story, display images and belongings of various First Ladies, and reveal their supporting role in the lives of their President spouses. On the second floor there is a neat gift shop that offers a wide variety of Victorian and historical-themed items.

In addition to regularly schedule tours, First Ladies National Historic Site occasionally offers special events and programs.

The park’s other historic structure is the seven-story, vintage 1895 National Bank Building, which has been renovated for use as the National First Ladies’ Library and Research Center. It serves as a national archive of the contributions of America's First Ladies and other notable American women. Like all the other facilities at First Ladies National Historic Site, the structure is wheelchair accessible.

First Ladies National Historic Site is managed by the National First Ladies' Library under the terms of a Cooperative Agreement with the National Park Service.

Some critics argue that the First Ladies National Historic Site should be managed as an Affiliated Area rather than as a national park. Under such an agreement, the National Park Service would provide technical assistance and financial assistance, but would not own, administer, or count the property as a unit of the National Park System. While unlikely, a redesignation is not beyond the realm of possibility. Given enough financial and political pressure, there could be a day when most low-visitation historic sites like this one are pruned from the National Park System and converted to Affiliated Areas.


Come on, Bob. You know this park is a political boondoggle and is a poster child for the dilution of the National Park System. It was created Congressman Regula and his wife is the chair of the First Ladies Library Association. Two of the Regula’s daughters also work at the park.

As for the cost per visitor. What about Isle Royale National Park? It got only 11,025 visitors last year and visitation is decreasing. Yet, it costs $4 million a year to operate and the NPS is asking for a $500,000 increase for 2009. I will agree that this is a significant resource and an important part of the National Park System. But at $400 a visitor, is that a valid expense?

By comparison, in 2007, First Ladies NHS got more visitors than Isle Royale: 11,112***, and costs $1 million to operate, for $91 per visitor.

*** [Ed: According to NPS official stats, the 2007 tally of recreational visits at First Ladies NHS was 10,881]

For 2008, the NPS spent almost $400 million to operate the 58 "National Park" national park units. It spent almost twice that to operate the historic sites, recreation areas, battlefields, etc. (Incidentally, "National Monuments" cost $76 million to operate.)

Rangertoo is absolutely right to look at cost per visitor; it's a good indicator of efficiency. I've not visited First Ladies NHS, so I cannot say that it isn't worthy of preservation. (I have visited the website and it seems quite nice.) The federal government, however, should not take on the task of preserving every historical building or object in the country. California does a great job of preserving Bidwell Mansion; the private, non-profit Thomas Jefferson Foundation preserves Monticello (T.J. probably wouldn't want it any other way); the non-profit Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum protects the Spruce Goose and other space artifacts without the help of the National Park Service.

As we enter the second great depression and our currency devalues and the economy contracts and tax revenue falls, we must look at streamlining the NPS. Places like First Ladies, Golden Spike, and other porkers should be transitioned into non-profits or sold to those who would continue preservation. And why is Isle Royale so expensive to operate? Preservation is cheap. Maintaining infrastructure for unsustainable industrial tourism is not. Spending millions to plow Crater Lake's Rim Drive or millions for god-knows-what at Isle Royale will no longer be options as the federal government teeters on the brink of bankruptcy.

The figure of 11,112 visitors for First Ladies and the visitors for Isle Royale are from the National Park Service Greenbook for 2009, the official budget request of the NPS made to Congress.

While looking at cost-per-visitor might indeed be a good indicator of whether you're getting the most bang for your buck, can we really use that yardstick when measuring the worth of places such as Yellowstone or Gettysburg? Are not some units of the National Park System invaluable in what they represent to the country and so worth the investment, no matter how it breaks down per visitor?

And if you do focus on cost-per-visitor, if it doesn't make sense for the federal government, why would it make sense for an NGO? And if private enterprise could make it work, perhaps the NPS should take a look at their business models, no?

perhaps the NPS should take a look at their business models, no?

Does the NPS use a business model? If so, can someone define/describe it?

Thanks for the date correction, d-2. First Ladies was indeed authorized in 2000, not 1980.


The "business model" comment was originally Mr. Repanshek's. I was asking what type of business model the NPS uses. It doesn't seem like there is one, but I stand ready to be corrected. As you and Rangertoo have aptly pointed out, there seems to have been no business model for First Ladies. And while it's debatable how "rare" Steamtowns and First Ladies have become in recent years, there seems to be no business model for most national parks because the government does not operate like a business; its revenue is appropriated indirectly through a coercive political system. Since it's a monopoly funded by coercion, the "customer relationship" is one-sided.

Mr. Repanshek that "some units of the National Park System [are] invaluable in what they represent to the country and so worth the investment", and I agree but think those "some" that are worth the investment usually could be self-supporting. (Yosemite comes to about $7.50 a person; Zion $2.50; Yellowstone $10.71; Crater Lake $10.00; even smaller parks like Lava Beds only cost $15 per person.) The subsidization of some parks causes inefficiencies. Do we need 19 FTE federal employees at Grant-Kohrs Ranch for 20,000 visitors while Fort Vancouver serves 35 times as many visitors with only 4 more FTE?

I think that if something is important enough to be preserved by the federal government, there should be enough demand to efficiently operate a site. There must be enough "target customers"; if there is not enough demand, the federal government should not assume that merely by the creation of sites will the demand arise afterward. That's a poor business model by any standard.

So, yes, the NPS should take a serious look at their business models, especially in light of the upcoming bankruptcy of the federal government.

The per visitor costs are leading nowhere. Do you want to apply it to Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve with its 26 visitors in 2007? Or Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska with 13,521? There are units in the system for protection only. Protection of nature or of historic places or buildings. Those can't be evaluated by the number of visitors. Of course it is valid to ask if a unit deserves the protection. And I won't defend First Ladies NHS. I am unsure if the First Ladies deserve a unit at all and I certainly believe Ms McKinley's home is the wrong place for it.

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