To most Americans, the name “Fort Knox” conjures up images of piles of gold bars locked away behind massive rock walls in Kentucky. To Mainers, though, Fort Knox is known as the Civil War-era fort perched at the mouth of the Penobscot River, looking across the water at Bucksport and the Verso paper mill. The fort and its grounds are a state park which in recent years added a much-visited amenity by virtue of it providing access to the Penobscot Narrows Bridge’s observatory.
Like some other parks in Maine, Fort Knox was blessed with the love and attention of a local friends group. The Friends of Fort Knox formed in the early 1990s during a recession that hit Maine especially hard and dried up state revenue. When serious structural deficiencies were found at the fort — the roof was in danger of collapse — and there was no state money for repairs, the locals raised funds, donated materials and volunteered their labor to repair the venerable edifice.
The group split a decade later over direction and personality conflicts, but the Friends of Fort Knox has continued as a viable organization, helping the fort and park thrive in these more recent times of lean public funding. But a bill that would put the Friends of Fort Knox in charge of maintaining and operating the park fundamentally changes the nature of such public assets. The arrangement may work well for many years or it may be fraught with problems, but regardless of how it plays out, the move does not bode well for our understanding of and esteem for such important parts of our heritage.
The state now contracts the Friends of Fort Knox to collect admission fees, operate the gift shop and give interpretive tours. These seem to be reasonable activities for a support group. But a management role is very different.
To be clear, the park still will be owned by the state. And the Friends of Fort Knox will have to manage the facility according to state park policies — i.e., the group can’t lease it out for a Hempstock festival or let visitors chip souvenir chunks off the fort’s granite walls.
The Department of Conservation insists this case is unique and that it does not intend to turn over management of other state parks to such private groups.
Still, it’s hard to understand the motivation for such a potentially precedent-setting move. A similar proposal was floated in 2009 and defeated, with good reason. Advocates of the move for Fort Knox State Park cite annual savings of only $40,000, hardly enough to warrant the risk.
And there are risks.
The maintenance work could be contracted out to friends of the Friends, so to speak. Other cronyism could creep in as well. Some maintenance projects could get higher priority based on the subjective decisions of a nonprofessional board of directors. And frankly, the Friends’ fractious history does not bode well for a consistent, steady management.
The state sees the potential for a group intimately involved with the park and fort to boost attendance. That more narrow mission could be delegated to the Friends of Fort Knox as an adjunct group. Our state’s history and public parks should be treasured and deemed worthy of attention, not left to nonprofessional management.