PROSPECT, Maine — Fort Knox State Historic Site is on track to becoming the only privatized park in the state, if Gov. Paul LePage signs off on an agreement between the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands and the nonprofit group the Friends of Fort Knox.
The state will retain full ownership of the fort, and the Friends of Fort Knox would need to run the historic site according to state park policies and procedures, according to the director of the Maine Department of Conservation’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.
“This is a one-off,” Will Harris said Friday morning of the change. “This isn’t the first of a whole line of trying to privatize state parks. That’s not what our intent is.”
For several years now, the Friends of Fort Knox organization has contracted with the state to provide some services at the popular 19th century fort that overlooks the Penobscot Narrows. So far, those services include collecting admissions fees, giving interpretive tours and running the gift shop. The group also has an agreement with the Maine Department of Transportation to staff the observation tower at the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. Access to the tower is through Fort Knox.
If the new agreement is finalized, the nonprofit group also will be in charge of the fort’s maintenance and operations management. Leon Seymour, executive director of the Friends of Fort Knox, will become the de facto park manager, according to Harris.
Last year, there were five state employees working at the seasonal historic site, including the manager, a ranger, an assistant ranger and two laborers. None will lose their jobs, Harris said, adding that park manager Mike Willis has been promoted to a position at Crescent Beach State Park in Cape Elizabeth.
Others have been reassigned, have been hired by the Friends of Fort Knox or would not have returned, Harris said.
The change in management likely would save the state about $40,000.
“One of the reasons this works is that the state will save some money,” Harris said. “It’s not the primary reason.”
He said the state has had a successful ongoing relationship with the Friends of Fort Knox.
“We’re hoping that having that local group being so intimately involved, they can increase the attendance,” Harris said.
Last year, the state split admission fees to the park 50-50 with the nonprofit group. That sum added up to about $69,000 each, Harris said. If the agreement is finalized, the Friends of Fort Knox will receive a larger share of the take. The state’s share is deposited into the General Fund.
Carol Weston, president of the Friends board, said Thursday that the new agreement would “progress” the relationship between the group and the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.
“We’ve been working together really well,” she said. “We see this as just a continued partnership.”
It’s not the first time that there has been a move to transfer day-to-day operations of Fort Knox to the Friends group. In 2009, the Legislature rejected a bill sponsored by Rep. Michael Celli, R-Brewer, that would have done that.
Harris said that according to Maine statute, the state can lease the operations of the property with the consent of the governor and the commissioner of the Department of Conservation.
Gov. LePage is supportive of the agreement, according to his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett.
She said Friday afternoon that because the agreement has not yet been finalized, she doesn’t have a time frame for when it will be signed.