May 26, 2018
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Discussions under way to have Friends group manage Fort Knox

By Bill Trotter, BDN Staff

PROSPECT, Maine —- A Brewer legislator reportedly has again raised the idea of transferring all the day-to-day management of Fort Knox to the Friends of Fort Knox, a nonprofit group that is contracted to provide some services at the state-owned historic site.

Two members of the Friends of Fort Knox, including the president of the Friends board, Carol Weston, confirmed Thursday that Rep. Michael Celli, R-Brewer, has had discussions about the idea with Maine Department of Conservation Commissioner William Beardsley. Both Weston and board member Tim Hall stressed that the Friends have taken no formal position on the plan and that the discussions were in the very early stages.

“I know there have been discussions with the commissioner,” Weston said. “We just signed a contract that’s identical to the one we had before. The discussion is about whether the Friends could do more. At this point, from what I’ve been told, it’s just in the discussion stage.”

Officials with Department of Conservation declined Friday to indicate specifically whether the department has had recent discussions with Celli about the idea of the Friends group taking over the day-to-day operations of the site. In 2009, Celli submitted a bill to the Legislature that would have transferred daily management of Fort Knox to the Friends group, but legislators rejected the idea.

In response to a request for comment, Beardsley indicated Friday morning in a prepared written statement that the department has been exploring ways surrounding communities might benefit from Fort Knox programs.

“We have been in discussion with hospitality groups, cruise ship lines, historic sites and other groups on expanding our involvement with Bucksport, Verona, and Prospect and surrounding communities on how to use Fort Knox as an economic catalyst,” Beardsley said in the two-sentence statement. “We’re hoping to involve the Friends.”

Repeated attempts Thursday and Friday to contact Celli for comment were unsuccessful. Celli did not return messages left in his cell phone voice mail, and a number listed for Celli in the Bangor area phone book is no longer in service.

Weston and Will Harris, director of of the department’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, said separately Friday that any change in operations at Fort Knox aimed at reducing the department’s expenses would have to be approved by the Legislature, which has final say over the state budget. Otherwise, they each said, a change in contractual duties handled by the Friends group could be approved by department officials.

Harris said Friends of Fort Knox currently has two contracts with BPL. One contract is to collect fort admission fees, give interpretive tours, and run the fort’s gift shop, he said. In exchange for providing these services, the Friends group gets to keep a certain percentage of the fort admission fees and BPL keeps the rest, Harris said.

Harris said the percentage of admission fees that the Friends group gets to keep changes from year-to-year, depending on the site’s financial needs. He said he believes this year’s contract calls for a 50-50 percentage split of the admission fees.

According to Leon Seymour, executive director of the Friends of Fort Knox, as part of its contracted duties the group also maintains financial records at the fort site, including those for admission fees and gift shop expenses and revenue. It also tracks attendance, schedules bookings for group tours or events such as weddings, and handles marketing and outreach of the site to schools and other groups, Seymour said.

Harris said the second contract between BPL and the Friends group is to collect admission fees for the observatory at the adjacent Penobscot Narrows Bridge, which is owned and maintained by the state Department of Transportation. MDOT has a contract with BPL for that service, which BPL then subcontracts to the Friends group for $40,000 a year, Harris said.

Beyond its contracts, Friends of Fort Knox also raises money for repairs and restorations at the fort property.

Other duties at Fort Knox are handled by BPL. The bureau has one manager and five seasonal employees on site to maintain the fort and grounds, Harris said. It also determines what kind of special events are held at the fort. The Friends group spearheads certain annual events such as the Psychic Faire, the Pirate Festival and Fright at the Fort, according to Harris, while BPL often takes the lead in planning events such as historic re-enactments. BPL and the Friends group work closely together in planning and staging such events at the fort, he said.

“We have to have a good relationship to have good success in running the site,” Harris said.

In 2009, Celli, a former president of the Friends group, said that transferring day-to-day management of Fort Knox over to the Friends would save the state between $130,000 and $160,000 per year. He emphasized at the time, however, that the Friends still would have to manage the site according to the requirements of state law. The state would have maintained ownership of the fort and the grounds, and the management change would not have “substantially altered” the uses of the fort site, according to the wording of the 2009 proposal.

The proposal received an “ought not to pass” recommendation from the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry committee, and subsequently was rejected both by the House and the Senate.

At that time, the Friends board took no position either in favor or against the proposed legislation, and Chris Popper, the board president at the time, said Celli’s bill had not been introduced on the organization’s behalf.

On Thursday, Friends board member Tim Hall, a retired regional director at the Bureau of Public Lands who oversaw the fort operations, said that in 2009, when Celli submitted the previous proposal, there was the impression that the Friends were trying to take over the fort. That created hard feelings between the state and the Friends, he said, noting that they have made strides since then to restore that relationship.

“We don’t want to damage that relationship,” he said. “They are our partners and we don’t like it when that relationship is strained.”

Hall said the Friends would cooperate with Celli, the commissioner and the governor, but also stressed that the discussions were “very preliminary.”

“We want to see what’s best for the state, for the fort and for the people of the state,” he said. “We’re there to help where we can.”

According to Weston, the Friends organization has done a lot for the fort since it was formed.

“I will say, on the strength of of the Friends’ record over the last decade, in terms of the amount of money they have put back into the fort and the programs that have brought more people to the fort — it’s a pretty good record,” she said.

BDN writer Rich Hewitt contributed to this report.

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