Critics say conservative Americans For Prosperity shouldn’t hold festival at Fort Knox

Posted June 11, 2012, at 5:56 p.m.
Last modified June 11, 2012, at 6:21 p.m.
Penobscot Narrows Bridge in October 2006. Fort Knox State Historic Site is in the bottom right of the photo.
Penobscot Narrows Bridge in October 2006. Fort Knox State Historic Site is in the bottom right of the photo. Buy Photo

PROSPECT, Maine — Every summer, the green parade grounds and old stone ramparts of Fort Knox Historic Site host all kinds of groups, from psychics to medieval re-enactors to pirates to Scottish bagpipers.

But one private event scheduled for July — the 2012 Economic Freedom Festival, sponsored by the Maine chapter of the conservative policy group Americans For Prosperity — has some folks feeling like the state-owned fort’s new management has gone too far. They also are concerned that the festival may be seen as something of a victory celebration after this spring’s controversial privatization of day-to-day management of the fort.

“Are we selling our heritage site as a commodity? Or are we preserving our heritage site as a heritage site for Maine?” Gordon Williamson of Prospect asked Monday.

He is a former member of the nonprofit Friends of Fort Knox group, which now manages the operations of the state-owned site.

“I have a fundamental disagreement with the approach that it’s a commodity that the state owns to be sold to the highest bidder — whether it’s the Americans For Prosperity or the psychic people,” Williamson said.

Leon Seymour, executive director of the Friends of Fort Knox, vehemently disagreed with Williamson’s view and noted that the Waldo County Democrats held their annual picnic at the fort for six years in a row and the Hancock County Republican Women came last summer.

“We’re open to everybody,” he said. “We like groups because they’re great for business. You can’t pick and choose based on your own political persuasion. I think it’s a tempest in a teapot.”

The July 7 fundraising festival will feature Gov. Paul LePage, conservative radio host Howie Carr and Tarren Bragdon, formerly of the conservative advocacy group the Maine Heritage Policy Center. It’s billed as “an afternoon with freedom-loving Mainers” and will culminate with a $100-per-plate sunset dinner that honors the 2012 “Maine Economic Freedom Fighter of the Year,” Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

One aspect of the event that seems the most egregious to Williamson is the fact that Carol Weston, president of the board of directors of the Friends of Fort Knox, is also the Maine state director for Americans For Prosperity. That conservative advocacy group was founded with support from billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and lobbies for lower taxes and less government regulation and spending.

“I’m just outraged,” Williamson said. “It looks to me like it’s a celebration party.”

He said he is trying to rally support from Mainers who would like to see the management lease with Friends of Fort Knox nullified and said he believes that politically sponsored events held there in the past also were improper.

However, Weston said Fort Knox and other state-owned sites have never had a “litmus test” for events and that there is nothing improper about holding the festival there.

“It’s open to all persuasions,” she said. “It fits in with our goal of bringing more people there to introduce them to this beautiful site.”

Joe Brooks of Winterport, who formerly served on the board of directors of the Friends group, said the fort should not allow political groups to use the facility, especially during an election year.

“I think if the state was still in control, this would not happen,” he said. “I don’t mean to say that we should discriminate against groups or individuals, but in a political year, I think we should be a little more discriminatory.”

But Jeanne Curran, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Conservation, said that people hold events at state parks all the time and the July 7 festival at Fort Knox isn’t any different.

“It’s just like any other event that we would hold at any other place on state property,” she said. “It’s no different than Occupy Maine setting up a camp at Capitol Park in Augusta and having people donate funds.”

Seymour said that during the festival, the fort would be open as usual to other people who want to stop in and see the 19th century edifice. Those who want to attend the festival during the afternoon would pay $15 each, which includes both the admission and the afternoon program.

Regular admission to the fort is $3 for adults and $1 for children ages 5-11, he said.

The fundraising dinner will be held in a spot adjacent to the Penobscot Narrows Observatory, which also is managed by Friends of Fort Knox. Attendees will dine on Maine delicacies while listening to LePage, Carr and Bragdon. Meanwhile, Seymour said, an Elton John tribute band will perform at the fort in an unrelated concert event.

He said Americans For Prosperity will pay $5 per person to Friends of Fort Knox to use the space after hours, which is the going rate.

“More and more museums are offering events outside of what you’d think their core mission is,” Seymour said in response to concerns that the Friends group is moving too far afield from the fort’s historic heritage. “There’s a clear reason for it: You want to cast a wider net and offer different programs that would appeal to different populations. If a movie theater showed ‘Gone With The Wind’ every single day, eventually you’d go out of business.”

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