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.

Comments

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?

Dear Frank C:

Regarding your point on "an NPS business model," if you look early on in this thread, Rangertoo makes the point that Rep Ralph Regula made this park happen. Therefore, this was NEVER a concept within an original national park service plan, much less business plan.

This park was established (my memory is it happened only around 8 years ago, not 28) at a time when the lead Republican staffer for the House Appropriations subcommittee for the Dept of the Interior, the NPS and other agencies, tyranized and micro-managed the NPS and terrified the not-very-distinguished group of NPS bureaucrats who ran the show in the washington office. They totally rolled over to Ralph Regula, and happily even drafted the bill in the way he wanted, and did not fight it. The appropriations committee would have eaten them for a snack if they had objected.

Things like this, and like Steamtown, are pretty rare.

The biggest thing wrong with the site is: there is no particular reason that this is the right place for it. Mrs. McKinley? Is she who you think about, is Canton the place you think about when you think of First Ladies (if you think about any other than Eleanor Roosevelt, that is).

There have been several efforts to establish a National Park System Plan, or a blueprint, for establishing new parks or landmark theme studies. Under no circumstances would this site have been the place NPS planners would have thought about if they even thought a "first ladies" park was a good idea.

PS: I was a little involved in the creation of Eleanor Roosevelt's historic site in Hyde Park. The overwhelming-stated attitude of the Republicans congressMEN at the time is that "First Ladies" should not have a site. Although, it frankly just sounded like a smoke-screen for the fact that they still hated Eleanor. Anyway, we needed to demonstrate that the accomplishments of Eleanor Roosevelt, as an historic figure in her own right, went way beyond her just being a first lady, just to get it established.

But when a big dog like Regula, as a Republican, wants a new site in Ohio he gets it, and the point is driven home by the otherwise restrictive appropriations committee staff. It is events like this one and Steamtown that give the lie to the idea that Republican's restraint on the NPS is a budgetary matter. When they want to, they are happy to blow the money.

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

d-2:

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.

Dear Frank C:

--There is a process, in law, for the establishment of new national parks.

-- Many parks do have business plans.

-- MRC is right about what matters in establishing a national park. These are places the nation decides it needs to set aside for the sake of what it means to be American. Visitation matters, but ultimately it is not what is essential about every park site. The site itself, and why it is important to America is what matters.

-- On generating money from sites, people have been trying to get the balance right since parks were first created. The point, thought, is to protect for American interest and education what is important to America, and not the money.

-- There is a charming feature of the character of America, that, like you and perhaps me and most of us to some extent, sees itself as living beyond or dispite of the efforts of the last 3000 years to bring civilization to the human condition, but only survives because of that civilization. Most peoples who settled America brought with them these charming tales of the good anarchist, such as Robin Hood. Even the act of setting aside wildlands and some of our national parks reflect this contrarian american spirit. But in the end, most sane people accept the need to sustain civilization and order; this spirit of cooperation is also part of America, and more to the point than coersion.

Parks are part of that great sense of American cooperation. We can work to perfect how they work, but in the end just shaking our fist at the sky, objecting to any government at all, is a whole other discussion.

The point, thought, is to protect for American interest and education what is important to America, and not the money.

Gosh, I wish that was reflected in my visit to Lewis and Clark NHS this weekend. I visited Fort Clatsop on Sunday, and my wife and I had some substantive questions (not just "Where's the bathroom?") that required an interpreter. Unfortunately, the uniformed ranger at the VC desk seemed more concerned about taking entrance fees than answering our questions (even though there were three volunteers at the desk who could have taken the fees at the register). She blew us off mid-answer to collect fees at the register. I know this is only one instance, but I've seen similar examples at other parks. (I won't go into the double taxation of the current fee structure here.)

But coming back to my previous question. d-2: You mention that many parks have business plans. What about business models? If so, what model do they use? Can you describe a business plan in use? It might be a semantic difference, but a general management plan and a business plan/model seem two different things.

There are units in the system for protection only.

MRC, if this is true, then why are so many FTE employees needed for these protection-only units? Which units are for protection only (and not enjoyment by the people)? It seems to me that the Organic Act's dual mandate indicates otherwise. (However, I'd readily vote to alter the Organic Act to mandate only protection, in which case,it would not seem that the NPS would need so many maintenance workers, LE rangers, and most importantly, administrators.)

This is a great discussion. I agree, that cost per visitor is not a valid measure of the value of a park or its costs. Somethings are worth protecting, not at any cost, but at a reasonable cost for effective preservation and management. I mention the cost of Isle Royale per visitor because it is a direct analogy to the original story of the cost of managing First Ladies. I would support taking the $1 million from First Ladies, de-authorizing, the site and giving the money to Isle Royale even if that did increase the cost per visitor there!

The point is, the funding of the national parks make no sense at all. Current park budgets are a hodge podge history of add ons, boosts, and additions over time that only go up and never go down. Even with declining visitation at places like Carlsbad Cavers or Grant's Tomb, you will not see a park's budget decrease and the money allocated to a park with growing visitation, added lands, or new challenges. This is unique among all federal agencies: no other agency is funded by Congress from the bottom up. National Forests, wildlife refuges, even military bases, are not funded by line-item allocations from Congress. This means that inefficiencies and the ineffective expenditures of budgets will continue because the central office of the NPS has no ability to analyze needs across the national park system and allocate funding accordingly to meet those needs and emerging challenges. In my opinion, advocating for a change to the budget system is the single most powerful thing the Director and the Secretary of the Interior could do to improve the national parks. True, more money is needed, but we could be doing a lot more with the current budget put in the right places.

-- Congress almost never sets the specific fund level for the operations of a national park. There is no line-item for park operations.

Congress will increase overall funding to parks, sometimes across the board but more commonly by an increase that is distributed down the priority list by the National Park Service for needed park increases. That list is identified and prioritized by the National Park Service. Operation funding almost never funded through line-item allocation by Congress. It is true that congressional staffers are trying to lean more dangerously in that direction, and that the NPS does provide its priority operations list of needs to the Congress, but that list is almost never changed by line-item adjustments by Congress.

Out of the hundreds of parks, if congress ever changed two a year, it would be notable.

-- Just like visitation does not ALWAYS drive funding increases, reduced visitation cannot always permit a budget cut. The example Rangertoo gives of Grant's Tomb is an example. After the events of September 11, the number of visits dropped, as I remember by an order of magnitude of around 30%, more or less. But the size of the site has a bare minimum number of staff to accomplish the functions, regardless of visitation. For example, although Grant's Tomb is roughly the size of the Lincoln Memorial (that has many more staff), Grant's Tomb has only one janitor/maintenance worker at the site. Again, with the large size of the building and grounds, it cannot function without this worker, and frankly I don't understand how that one worker can accomplishe as much as she does. Even if you were to shut down the building to visitors altogether, you would still have significant tasks taking care of the grounds because they could not be closed to visits. There are several other examples at Grants Tomb, and several other parks around the country with similar problems, that could not be cut back without significant, and far more expensive, loss to the park resource itself.

-- Because all the parks are so different, in size and resource character and in the kind of costs for their needs, trying to put together a "one size fits all" central management system has been the fool's errant for those who seem constantly to attempt it.

Parks are strongest when the management is closest to the ground, closest to the visitor, closest to the specific character of that individual park. I have seen the budget manager in Washington try to get into decisions about the appropriate level of funding in an individual park, and it is a pretty sorry site to watch. Rangertoo, I fear your proposed central budget management system IS NOT A GOOD IDEA.

The better system is to build strong communication networks among park managers in geographic zones to identify the greatest needs, and place the ultimately priority setting responsibility in the Regional Office, in the hands of the same person who supervises and is accountable for the performance of each superintendent. That Regional Office knows that if it sends bloated or unsupportable priorities to Washington, its Region will lose out to the other Regions.

-- It would be great to think that this system could also redistribute money from the "fat" parks to the broke ones, and that method was tried by Roger Kennedy and John Reynolds in the 1990's when they were Director and Deputy. Although it may be true that part of the problem is one park is simply not going to try to raid the treasury of another and no distributions happened, it is the higher reality that almost all parks have been cut so much over the years that there are no fat parks.

-- Efforts to cut park budgets more by "finding fat," the idea that some are wasting money and need to be found out so funds can be redistributed, have been a disaster. They have cost far more than they have saved.

But the worst thing about all the current "accounability" efforts has been that parks are distracted from managing the park, and are more and more managing the administrative system, in closed-loop communication with the Office of Management and Budget and Washington beancounters. If that effort were put back into the primary mission, managing the park and providing for visitor experience, parks would be better off. And taxpayers would get a bigger bang for the buck.

These "accountability" systems are just a way of trying to blame the Victim -- the park and the public who wants to enjoy that park -- for the failure to fund the national parks at an operational level equal to the level provided in the '60's and the '70's (adjusted to today's dollars) Plus, often unfunded or incompletely funded are the new tasks required of the agency, such as the accountability systems, environmental compliance systems, safety and maintenance management systems, planning requirements, communications systems, contracting rules, etc etc etc.

These REAL problems, the reduced (de facto) budgets and underfunded new obligations, so dwarf the "efficiencies" sought through new "accountability" systems and new "reorganizations" that it is silly to think these systems can possibly be the panacea.

They are just ways to blame the victim, instead of forcing the President and the Congress to address the funding problems for parks. They are just devices for starving the National Park System out of existence, and blaming the parks and park people for the problem.

I'm sure most people here know that the National Park Service had and has ZERO interest in acquiring and administering a lot of these pork-barrel parks. Why does Cuyahoga National Park (a place that ought to be a county park at best) exist? Because local business/tourism/political interests wanted it to exist. Why was it upgraded from National Recreation Area to National Park? Because those interests thought it would attract more visitors (=$) as a NP.
It's not preservationists or conservationists or the Park Service who are driving the establishment of these third-rate parks (like First Ladies); it's businesspeople and the boot-licking politicians who are owned by business interests. And then conservatives complain about Big Government and the inefficiency of government agencies and say they ought to be run on "business models." Would those be the business models of savings and loans, mortgage companies, investment firms, and auto companies? Or the Pentagon? If you want the National Park Service to be efficient, let qualified people decide what ought to be a NPS-administered park and what ought to be left up to the local chamber of commerce.

Rangertoo,
At least check your facts before making such bold and derogatory statements. FORMER Congressman Regula doesn't even have two daughters!! I am his ONE daughter and yes, I work at the National First Ladies Library as the Research Librarian. I have an MLS in library science and worked as a librarian for 20+ years prior to coming to the NFLL three years ago. I was not employed there when the library was created and I was not looking for a job, as I had a very good one, when I was approached by the library as they were in desperate need of a qualified librarian. I took a pay cut to come there to help with their very worthwhile mission of educating about the role of First Ladies in our country's history.
I manage the library, serve as the webmaster, manage the curriculum creation for teachers, conduct workshops and programs and do a number of other jobs. We have a very small staff so everyone wears several hats.
I am not privy to funding or general managment issues at the library so can't enter in this discussion. I do know, however, that much of the funding for the library and historic site was originally and is still provided through private fundraising efforts. Like many small historic sites we struggle to attract visitors and to provide educational programs for adults and children.
The Saxton McKinley Home, which was the only home lived in by William McKinley during his tenure in office and thus could even be considered a Presidential home, was destined for the wrecking ball had it not be saved by a committee of dedicated citizens. All the renovations were paid for through private donations.
It was actually Hillary Clinton who originally designated some monies for the site as part of the Save America's Treasures program.

Here's a question - when was the last time the NPS Director actually fought for the budget? When was the last time the Director went out and stood up for at least maintaining the current budget as opposed to taking cuts? Why was it only NPCA fighting for NPS to get stimulus money? Where was the Interim Director?