PROSPECT, Maine — A Brewer legislator has proposed turning the operation of Fort Knox State Historic Site over to the Friends of Fort Knox group.
Rep. Michael Celli, R-Brewer, has submitted legislation as a cost-saving measure for the state.
“This is strictly a financial proposal,” Celli said. “This could save the state $130,000 to $160,000 a year, and the Friends organization could definitely handle it.”
Celli, who is a member of the Friends’ board of directors and has served as president of the organization, said he plans to review the financial aspect of his proposed legislation with the governor’s budget office, which he said was necessary to ensure the savings were targeted to the Bureau of Parks and Lands.
“One of the things I want to make sure of is that the money saved is still used by the Conservation Department and the Bureau of Parks and Lands,” he said. “The savings could help them to reinstate some positions that they had to cut.”
BPL, an arm of the Conservation Department, maintains and operates the historic site, although the Friends of Fort Knox has a contract with the department to handle ticket taking and tours at the fort. The Friends group also has an agreement with the Department of Transportation to staff the observation tower at the Penobscot Narrows Bridge.
Celli said there is some precedent for the move. He pointed to Montpelier, the replica of the home of Gen. Henry Knox in Thomaston. In 1999, the state turned over ownership of the mansion to the nonprofit group Friends of Montpelier. The building was built in 1929 through the efforts of the Knox Memorial Association, which operated the Knox Museum until 1965, when the BPL took over operations and ownership. The state operated the site until ownership was transferred to the Friends in 1999.
Celli stressed that this situation is different and that his proposal would not transfer ownership. Fort Knox still would be owned by the state of Maine, he said. The bill stipulates that the equipment and buildings needed to operate and maintain the site would be leased to the Friends group. The bill also requires that the site con-tinue to be managed according the requirements in state law, and that change in management shall not substantially alter the uses of the fort site.
“We’d still follow the same rules and be governed by Conservation and the Bureau of Parks and Lands,” he said. “We’d be under the direction of the department.”
Under the proposal, the Friends group would take over operations of the historic site in May 2010. Celli said the bill is a “two-year experiment.”
“If it doesn’t work, we can change it,” he said.
Officials at the Department of Conservation had little to say about the bill. Jeanne Curran, director of public information for the department, issued a brief statement noting that the department is preparing testimony on the proposal. Generally, Curran said, the department is opposed to transferring the operation of state parks and sites out of state hands.
Although the Friends board is aware of Celli’s proposed legislation, the board has not discussed the proposal formally, nor has it taken any vote on it, according to President Chris Popper. The bill was not submitted on behalf of the Friends group, he said,
“We did not ask him to do this,” Popper said.
Popper said he has seen a copy of the bill, but, since the board has not discussed it, he said he could not comment on it.
“We’ve enjoyed our partnership with the Bureau of Parks and Lands and the Department of Transportation, and we look forward to working with them in some manner for some time to come,” he said.
He said he had some initial concerns about the proposal, but did not discuss them.
If the Friends group did take over operation of the Fort in May 2010, that would give current Fort Knox employees the opportunity to transfer to other positions within the department.
Both the House and the Senate have referred the bill to the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
BANGOR DAILY NEWS FILE PHOTO BY BRIDGET BROWN
Tourists enjoy the pleasant weather July 5, 2008, at Fort Knox in Prospect. A Brewer legislator has proposed park operations be turned over to the Friends of Fort Knox to save the state money.