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Bona fide Deal or Bailout? Should the NPS Acquire Grant's Farm near St. Louis?
Old McDonald had his farm, but Grant's Farm, owned by the Busch family of brewing fame, puts him to shame. Their place near St. Louis is home to some 100 species of animals, including zebras, elephants and farm animals, and it's recently been studied as a possible addition to the National Park System. Is this a bona fide prospect for the NPS—or another potential bailout of a popular but underfunded private attraction?
The farm, which now covers about 273 acres, was part of a larger tract once owned by Ulysses S. Grant. It was purchased in 1903 by the Busch family, which developed some impressive structures on the property, including a 3-story mansion with 26 rooms and 14 bathrooms nicknamed the Big House. A family trust now leases the property to Anheuser-Busch and it currently draws about 500,000 visitors a year. The facility described in some documents as a "wildlife preserve and zoo" clearly offers plenty of activities for family fun.
The question is whether that popularity—and the site's ties with both a former president and a prominent family that built a brewing empire—qualify it to become a unit of the National Park System?
The agency is in the early stages of answering that question and has recently completed a Preliminary Boundary Adjustment Evaluation and Reconnaissance Study to help determine if the property meets the criteria for an NPS site.
The prospect of bringing the area under NPS management via a boundary adjustment of an existing park rather than designation of a new NPS unit is possible because Grants Farm is adjacent to the existing Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. The recently completed study is the first step in evaluating the idea.
So, what's at Grant's Farm and what do current visitors experience?
Grant's Farm currently houses more than 900 animals representing more than 100 different species, including elephants, zebras, camels and parrots. Perhaps the most famous attractions on the property are some horses: the Budweiser Clydesdale Stables is home to about two dozen of the animals, including mares, geldings, stallions and foals.
For history buffs, the site also includes the restored cabin Ulysses S. Grant built elsewhere on the property in 1855, although he actually occupied it for only a short period. Other cultural resources identified in the recent report include "Busch family estate features: the French Revival style mansion known as the 'Big House,' the 'Bauernhof' farm and service complex, and other historic buildings, landscapes, and landscape features associated with the Busch family
Given the site's popularity with the public and the long connection with the Busch family, what's prompting discussions of a possible change in ownership?
According to local media reports, “The desire is to have long-term preservation and public access to the farm,” said Frank Hamsher, a spokesman for the Busch family. “We are simply looking at what are the best options for long-term preservation of the property.”
Those same reports also note the farm loses about $3.5 million to $4 million a year, and it's unknown if those figures include the expenses to maintain the family mansion located on the property. Perhaps those costs are a factor in the family's consideration of a sale or transfer of the Farm.
The 2008 acquisition of Anheuser-Busch by the overseas corporation InBev has also raised some questions about the future of the farm; there were media reports last week that the new Busch management is considering the sale of another Busch enterprise, the Kingsmill Resort & Spa in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Financial issues could certainly present a major hurdle for NPS acquisition of the entire property as it's now being operated.
The current operation doesn't charge an admission fee, but it does collect mandatory parking fees ($11 per car) and raises additional revenue from food and beverage sales, gift shops and special functions. Parts of the facility can be rented for private events, ranging from birthday parties ($200 and up for 10 guests) to larger affairs ($4,000 for four hours for up to 700 guests.)
Guests can also book a $200 "private expedition" for up to 12 people, which includes "a ride in an open air vehicle through the Deer Park with up close feeding experience with animals and fish," a visit to the Clydesdale stables, parking passes and other benefits. Such revenue would not likely be available under NPS ownership, so the actual cost for the agency to operate the facility in its current mode would be significant.
The question of finances will likely play a big role in the current discussions about a possible NPS role. "Grant's Farm has been a great asset to the community for generations,” said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “As with everything right now, we need to keep our country’s current financial situation in mind, so I would be most interested in exploring options that would not add to our country's deficit."
The potential costs for an agency already short on cash should be given a close look, but perhaps the larger question is how the current operation would fit within the framework of the NPS. Would visitors expect the same types of activities currently offered under the Busch management? Here are just two examples:
(1) "Educational and entertaining animal shows" in the Tier Garten amphitheater offer "an up-close look at an amazing variety of animals, including kangaroos, tortoises, colorful birds and various other animals. Visitors can enjoy petting and hand-feeding some of the animals, including pygmy goats. The Elephant Education show and Animal Encounters show highlight the talents of elephants, parrots, mammals, and reptiles."
(2) Private birthday party packages offer more than just cake and ice cream; they include "10 goat feeding tickets" and "camel feeding for 10 children."
There's absolutely nothing wrong with such activities in a private setting such as Grant's Farm. A key question is whether they are appropriate for the NPS. If not, how would the established local constituency for the Farm react if these attractions were discontinued under NPS management?
While the desire of the Busch family to ensure the Farm continues to operate in the future is understandable, it would be an understatement to say many of the current activities aren't a good fit for the NPS. The recently completed NPS study seems to agree. Here's an excerpt from the study's conclusions:
Preliminary Boundary Adjustment Evaluation: The addition of portions of Grant’s Farm could add important Grant-related resources to Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. However, adding the entire Grant’s Farm property to the boundary of Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site would likely not be appropriate or feasible.
If a smaller parcel could be carved to encompass the Grant-related resources of Grant’s Cabin [and related sites]… the smaller section might comprise an eligible and feasible addition. A boundary assessment to consider the addition of a smaller area may be warranted.
Modification to the current configuration of Grant’s Farm may run counter to the Busch
family’s desires for long-term preservation of the estate. The family’s willingness to consider subdividing the property would be a major factor in evaluating the desirability of a boundary adjustment.
Reconnaissance Study: There is potential for the Anheuser-Busch and Busch family–related resources to be determined as nationally significant, but these would need to be evaluated more thoroughly before a definitive statement is made. The suitability criteria likely would be met in a full study, if the resources are deemed compatible with the NPS mission and policies. It seems unlikely, however, that the feasibility criteria would be met in any future study. Costs of acquisition and management of the structures, collections, and maintained landscapes would likely be infeasible for the NPS.
What do you think about a future NPS role at Grant's Farm? Are there some worthwhile options, or would this be just another bailout of a underfunded private site? You can download and read a copy of the full study document at this link.