Fort Knox Has Friends

Posted March 17, 2009, at 7:56 p.m.

A proposal to turn over the management and operation of Fort Knox State Historic Site in Prospect to the private nonprofit booster group Friends of Fort Knox seems grounded in common sense. The Friends group has rallied repeatedly to the fort’s cause, raising money to pay for repairs the state could not fund. The Friends group is intimately aware of the fort’s appeal to the public and can tailor marketing efforts accordingly. And the members believe they can care for the historic property better than the state can and at a lower cost.

But this is the wrong move, destined to collectively weaken, not strengthen, public support for and loyalty to state parks.

Rep. Michael Celli, R-Brewer, has proposed the transfer in LD 509. Since he first broached the idea, Rep. Celli has amended the concept, he said last week, so the state Department of Conservation would retain ownership of the facility. In addition, the Friends would have to honor the same passes used at other state parks and historic sites and charge the same entrance fees.

Rep. Celli estimates the state would save more than $100,000 annually by allowing the Friends to run the park. One full-time position would be eliminated under the plan, creating savings. By hiring for lawn mowing and other work, the Friends would not have to pay state benefits, thereby reducing the cost.

Scarborough Beach State Park, a property acquired by the Land For Maine’s Future program, is operated by such a booster group, Rep. Celli said, as is the Montpelier historic site in Thomaston.

But to have the Friends group operate and manage the site is to place it on a more narrow foundation.

The fort is one of Maine’s most visited historic sites, and its success with the public continues to grow after completion of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge & Observatory. To access the tower observatory, visitors must pay the entrance fee to the park. The fort is a steady revenue source for the state, not an unwanted orphan. Ironically, a better case could be made for transferring management and operation to a booster group for a less-known, less-visited site.

And last, the Friends of Fort Knox has a less than stable history. The group split a few years ago and the conflict between the two entities led to lawsuits. Rep. Celli, who served on the Friends board of directors, said the surviving group is stable now. But some of the key players in the feud are still involved.

As laudable as the Friends’ work on the fort has been, the savings Rep. Celli predicts are too small to risk mismanagement of these cultural resource.

Experimenting with a new management model is unwarranted and dangerous.

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