Control battle brews over historic park
September 23, 2013 10:45 AM
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WASHINGTON CROSSING — A 250-word section slipped into a state budget bill that passed this summer has triggered a firefight over who will control a sprawling park that includes the site where Gen. George Washington’s army crossed the Delaware River in the early days of the American Revolution.

The provision calls for two state agencies to work out an agreement about how to manage Washington Crossing Historic Park, six months after the opening of a long-planned $5 million visitor center. Neither agency actively sought the legislation, which has drawn objections from a group of volunteers that has raised money and manpower to keep the park going.

Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks, said he pushed for the measure out of a conviction the park is being mismanaged, from poor yard maintenance and poison ivy patches to inconsistent tour hours and duplication of effort between the Historical and Museum Commission and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“If you take two agencies and you say, ‘Bring the best you can offer to the table,’ how can it end up being worse?” Petri said. “A lot of this is about money. If you’re DCNR, do you want 500 acres to maintain? Of course not. But they are good at managing property.”

Both agencies are trying to figure out what the legislation means, and the way it was put into the fiscal code — with very little advance notice — is being viewed with suspicion by the Friends of Washington Crossing Park, a volunteer group that has played an integral role in running the park in recent years.

Friends President John Godzieba, a police lieutenant who portrays Washington in the annual re-enactment of the crossing in December, said the new law is particularly troubling considering that a $250,000 long-range plan is nearly complete.

“Our concern is that all the time, effort and money that the commonwealth has put into this master plan has now been circumvented by this legislation,” Godzieba said. “And none of the stakeholders were ever consulted.”

Petri, a member of the Historical and Museum Commission, said the study should be a major factor in the direction the agencies take with the park.

Washington’s Continental Army was on its heels in late 1776, trying to protect Philadelphia from an attack by the British after a series of defeats. By the time the sun rose Dec. 26, he had ferried his ragtag troops across the icy Delaware and into New Jersey, where he surprised and defeated German troops in Trenton.

The crossing became a powerful symbol, in part because of the dramatic — albeit historically inaccurate — depiction in an 1851 painting by Emanuel Gottleib Leutze that hangs prominently in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The park has had its struggles and even closed its visitor center in 2009, two years before construction began on the new building.

On a recent weekday, it was nearly empty, the bathrooms were closed because of a problem with the connection to the sewage main and the museum contained a few artifacts and large empty spaces.

The Historical and Museum Commission has four employees at the site, including two who maintain the grounds, sometimes aided by inmates from the county prison.

Paid attendance last year was about 20,000, a number that does not include the many who use the park’s free outdoor spaces.

The property contains more than 40 buildings, many of them in a state of decay, and the expansive grassy areas have proven a challenge to maintain.

The state paid $530,000 to operate the park last year, while the Friends group kicked in $370,000 and funded nine staff positions, mostly part time.

Howard Pollman, the commission’s spokesman, said “it would be difficult if not impossible” to manage the site without the Friends, though it’s unclear what Petri’s legislation will mean to them over time.

“I think everything is in flux,” Pollman said. “But right now, we’re operating, business as usual.”

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