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NJ State Historic Sites at Risk: it’s getting worse!

October 20, 2008

Word from the local advocates for Batsto Village in Wharton State Forest is that the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) plans to use a significant part of the just-restored Batsto Mansion for office space for Parks & Forestry Division staffers, and that a new, large paved parking lot is planned for a site immediately adjacent to the house. 

“The mansion, which dates to 1784, is the focal point of the village for visitors, students and historians. The state of New Jersey is currently expending more than two million dollars of taxpayer monies to restore and stabilize the structure for future generations. As the project comes to a close, it has been revealed that [Parks & Forestry] is planning to vacate its current office structure and commandeer approximately one third of the mansion for office space…. This area, today known as the caretakers or servants wing, is critical to the historic interpretation of the early settlers of Batsto….”

Meanwhile, the DEP has closed the Indian King Tavern in Haddonfield, thanks apparently to the state hiring freeze which prevents hiring staff to manage and keep open to the public New Jersey’s first State Historic Site (est. 1903). 

These are just two examples highlighting the crisis facing the state’s precious historic sites.  The Governor and Administration have warned fans and supporters of state historic sites and parks that new sources of non-tax revenue must be found in order to keep these important places open and available to NJ citizens.

The crisis isn’t limited to New Jersey.  This spring, California Gov. Schwarzenegger just barely dropped his plan to slash $13.3 million in parks funding – 8.9 percent of the parks department’s budget – which would have meant shuttering 48 parks and historic sites, although the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the entire system in the annual 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in America for its $1.2 billion in deferred maintenance.  And Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich recently followed through on threats of painful government cutbacks, announcing layoffs of 450 state workers and closing two dozen state parks and historic sites, including the Dana Thomas House in Springfield.

We’re going to have to explore innovative ways of funding and managing these important historic places as the NJ state budget shrinks even more.  Donna Ann Harris’ book, New Solutions for House Museums, is a must-read examination of possible options for house museums to assure their continued preservation.  It provides a decision-making methodology as well as a dozen case studies of house museums that have made a successful transition to new funding and stewardship paradigms.

HELP Preservation New Jersey to protect and preserve the historic places that make every New Jersey community unique.  Donate today!

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2008 1:09 pm

    Government owned historic sites have been under attack for years, but this recent spate is particularly grim. I have been researching and writing about the demographic shift facing historic sites for several years, leading to the publication of my book New Solutions for House Museums–thanks for the plug Ron!.

    I will be speaking about the problems facing historic sites at the upcoming New Jersey Forum to be held in Trenton on November 22, and I hope you will join me. While I will not have a great deal of time to lay out all of the options I have researched over the years, I will be able to discuss some very interesting examples found in New Jersey and elsewhere. Our main goal should be to preserve these properties for generations to come.

  2. Paul Heitmann permalink
    October 21, 2008 12:12 pm

    The only way to combat this type of encroachment is to demand full disclosure on the cost/benefit analysis that led to the decision. Based on the assumptions made, you will likely find that the benefit has been overestimated (maybe not even compared with cheaper alternative solutions), and the opportunity costs of impacted public access and education, along with degradation to the structures and surrouonding facilities from commercial use, have likely been ignored (or minimized, at best).

    Next, a grassroots campaign needs to be started and rapidly expanded where media attention is drawn to the issues. Perhaps a debate forum could be employed at a local college for a balanced view to be brought to light. The goal should be to have reasoned discourse and collective understanding of all the issues involved. This campaign should have easily accessed and compelling web based education components and interactive possibilities – such as this blog so effectively provides – where people can dialog.

    Once things like this move forward unquestioned they are very, very difficult to undo and the slippery slope toward the bulldozer has begun.

  3. Vera C. Stek permalink
    November 19, 2008 9:53 am

    Everyone should be aware of this plan to use Batsto Mansion as offices for the Southern Region of the parks and forestry, which has a perfectly beautiful building just 3 miles away. It has already cost taxpayers more than $2 to renovate the mansion, presumably so visitors could enjoy visiting it for many generations, not so office workers could have a cushy place to sit. Renovating the oldest portion of the mansion will cost taxpayers an addition $229,000 and that doesn’t include the planned parking lot adjacent to the mansion. This is required, according to the application because of the 225 feet of dirt road the workers would have to walk on, which would be dangerous for them! What about the thousands of visitors who have walked on these dirt roads forever?? You should also know I have been fired as a volunteer at Batsto after 3 years of hard work for speaking out against this plan. Great way for the state to deal with people who want to work for FREE!!!

  4. Bill Schaal permalink
    November 19, 2008 10:56 am

    OK all. Here’s some financial information for the proposed offices in Batsto Mansion. Remember…this plan is supposed to be saving the state money AND these costs are in addition to the more that 2 million dollar restoration the tax payers have already paid for:

    Aside from the historic loss, which includes the lack of ability to recreate the servants quarters and add the oldest part of the mansion to public tours, this plan, which the state tried to execute in the dark of night, is allegedly intended to “save money.”

    I wanted to see how much money was involved to install the offices so I did an OPRA record request. I really didn’t expect to get anything back but I did and I almost fell on the floor when I saw the bottom line.

    The State Park Service estimate to convert the caretakers wing into six offices totals, are you ready? $229,765.00 and this does not include the proposed parking lot. This includes over $128,000 for “carpet and linoleum.” Wow, congratulations to the the winner of that contract! Anyone want to buy a screwdriver for the Pentagon?

    Is this the same State Park Service that can’t keep the parks open due to lack of money? The same one that goes begging to volunteers and organizations to fund seasonal positions or visitor programs due to lack of state funds? The same one that plans to vacate a perfectly good building that will still require state maintenance as it too is located in Wharton State Forest? Where is this money coming from?

    You’ll really love the diva like position of the State Park Service regarding the proposed parking lot (complete with typos):

    “If the present parking lot (Batsto Visitor Center) is utilized for the Regional Office the following should be considered. From the parking lot the Batsto Mansion is 550′. Presently 225′ is a concrete walkway and 325′ consists of a dirt road. During inclement weather this does not seem reasonable and is potentially unsafe.”

    So, after 50 years of state ownership, it is suddenly unsafe to walk 550′ from the parking lot to the mansion. It’s more a case that state employees don’t want to walk to the mansion from the parking lot. They would rather their park vehicles in an area that’s on the Sate and Federal Registers of Historic Places. Disgusting.

    And, in this time of state fiscal instability, the current Wharton Superintendent is dismissing volunteers who speak out against this plan and intimidating others; that they will be “separated” if they do likewise. One volunteer was dismissed in such an offensive manner that she is exploring action with the ACLU.

    And, the on site historian, who happens to have a Ph.D. in history, was removed from Batsto for a “disagreement” with the Superintendent and re-assigned, at full salary, to a state park that has no historic buildings!

    Please keep in mind that the perfectly suitable building the SPS is currently in will still need to be maintained by the state as it is in Wharton State Forest. Further, there is a vacant state owned building in Greenbank that has plenty of room if they really needed to get out of their current building.

    The little group I’m working with on this has met with some local state senators and assemblymen but we need to get more attention on this. We are getting worn down. We need help. Please make phone calls, send letters and emails, and rattle any cage you can.

    Phone numbers of interest include:

    Rob Aurmeuller, Wharton Superintendent:
    609-561-0024
    Tom Keck, Regional State Park Superintentent:
    609-861-5136
    Amy Cradic, Asst. Commissioner, DEP:
    609-292-3541

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