PROSPECT, Maine — After Gov. Paul LePage signs a financial order next week that will make official a comprehensive lease to privatize the day-to-day management of Fort Knox Historic Site, state officials will be required to give advance notification before inspecting the park — which will continue to be owned by the state.
That is one of the points of the lease between the Maine Department of Conservation’s Bureau of Parks and Lands and the nonprofit Friends of Fort Knox. The document was made available to the media late Wednesday afternoon by Gov. LePage’s spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.
State and Friends of Fort Knox officials say the agreement simply extends a long-standing partnership between the two entities. But critics believe that privatizing management of a state-owned facility is not a good step for Maine and that there should have been an opportunity to weigh in on the matter before the deal is complete.
Gordon Williamson of Prospect, a former member of the Friends of Fort Knox, said the leasing of the fort makes him “really frustrated.”
“I don’t believe we should privatize anything that’s public, specifically something like this,” he said Thursday. “It’s a visible expression of the love for the state that the citizens of Maine have. It’s a precious gem of ours. Giving that away … I think it’s wrong.”
He asked why the public has not been given the chance to comment on the deal. Bennett said Thursday that Maine Department of Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley should respond to the question. Efforts to contact Beardsley on Thursday were unsuccessful.
Earlier this week, he said the lease agreement with the friends group was a “short-term thing.”
“We’re going to see how it works out,” Beardsley said.
According to Maine statute, the state can lease the operations of the fort with the consent of the governor and the commissioner of the Department of Conservation. The Legislature will not vote on the current plan.
Williamson also said he is concerned that nothing in the lease appears to prohibit the commercialization of the fort for profit, via concessions, merchandising or signage.
“Of course these corporations won’t spend this money without getting something in return,” he said. “Mark my words that there will be signage around the fort saying that ‘this repair’ or ‘that walkway’ is brought to you by XYZ Corporation.”
The lease will run from April 15 until Dec. 31, 2015, and under its terms the Friends of Fort Knox will operate the 19th century fort as a state park that will be open to the public during its usual season from the beginning of May through the end of October.
In exchange for managing the park, the friends group will receive 85 percent of all gross admissions, with the other 15 percent going to the state’s General Fund. Last season, the Friends of Fort Knox received half of gross admissions in exchange for its services, which until now have included collecting admissions fees, giving interpretive tours, running the gift shop and staffing the observation tower at the nearby Penobscot Narrows Bridge.
Among the specific points of the new lease:
• The Friends of Fort Knox will be responsible for all grounds maintenance as well as maintaining the interior and exterior of all the buildings.
• The Friends of Fort Knox has the right to “improve or alter” the leased fort, as long as the changes are consistent with federal, state and municipal laws and are approved by the Bureau of Parks and Lands.
• The Friends of Fort Knox will charge admission fees during regular hours of operation that are consistent with the state’s parks admission fee schedule for the 2012 season. But in subsequent years, the friends group may set its own admission fees with approval from the bureau. Those fees must be consistent with the state policy of keeping fees affordable for Maine residents.
• The Friends of Fort Knox may not sublet the fort without prior written consent of the bureau.
• Use, replacements, additions to, or renovations of historic facilities such as the ovens must be approved in writing by the Bureau of Parks and Lands.
• The Bureau of Parks and Lands may cancel or revoke the lease after giving due notice to the Friends of Fort Knox if the conditions imposed in the lease are broken.
• If the deal is defaulted, state officials may reenter Fort Knox and “remove all persons and all or any property” from there. Upon the expiration or termination of the lease, the Friends of Fort Knox must “peaceably and quietly surrender” the fort to the state.