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Should a Georgia county build a battlefield park?
Advocates of a planned Civil War battlefield park in northwest Georgia tout an old real estate maxim: Location, location, location.
Several Georgia Civil War sites are within a few miles of Interstate 75, the busy highway that shadows the route of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign.
Interstate 75 actually runs through the middle of the Resaca battleground, making the Civil War site literally just an exit ramp away.
“If they build it, even casual visitors will be in a matter of moments on the Resaca battlefield,” says Sam Weddle, park management assistant at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, about 30 miles to the north.
Gordon County, which recently inherited the project from the cash-strapped state of Georgia, would like to see Resaca Battlefield Historic Site open in time for the national sesquicentennial of the Civil War, which lasts from 2011-2015.
Supporters have waged an at-times frustrating 15-year campaign to build a road and a state-of-the-art visitors center to draw dollar-spending historical tourists to a county needing economic diversification. Gordon County’s unemployment rate is 13.1 percent, well above the state average 10.0 percent.
“This could be a huge impact for the county,” says Beth Grubbs, tourism chief for the Gordon County Chamber of Commerce.
But the project is not a done deal.
Gordon County is grappling with its own budget woes because of the economy. The carpet industry, one of the economic mainstays of the county, and other businesses have endured a long slide in lost jobs.
Estimates for construction (which includes site work, the road, the visitors center and a septic system) and exhibits at Resaca run as high as $5 million.
The state gave Gordon County $3.3 million and a 50-year lease to the nearly 600 acres. But the county will have to come up with the additional $1.7 million.
That might be a tough sell for five commissioners who had to temporarily stop the county’s contribution to the retirement plans of 320 employees. They also suspended 10 paid state holidays, effective next month.
Commission Chairman Alvin Long, like others interviewed for this article, hopes bids will come in low. “My heart tells me to go forward. But I can’t take money from taxpayers,” he says.
County administrator Randall Dowling, who will present the bid package and recommendation to the board in April, says the battlefield park is an exciting project that will be of interest to people of all ages.
The visitors center will “be the hub in the spoke” of several Civil War sites in Gordon County, including the county-operated Fort Wayne and a Confederate cemetery, he says.
Opinions on the project are mixed, Dowling says.
He says county employees ask him whether it’s right to build the site during a tough economic time in which they are making a sacrifice.
“The board is wrestling with this,” Dowling says.
At the same time, Gordon County leaders are worried the $3.3 million in state money will go away forever if they don’t spend it.
“If we don’t move forward then the state will move it to other projects,” says Long.
Thousands of I-75 motorists traveling between Chattanooga, Tenn., and Atlanta have no idea that 6,100 men were killed or wounded just off Exit 320. The exit to Ga. 136 at Resaca has no hotels and little fanfare. You wouldn’t know where the battlefield was unless you were told.
On May 13-15, 1864, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s army and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee bloodied each other. There was no clear winner. Sherman continued his march toward Atlanta, which he took several months later.
Local residents began pushing for the park in the 1990s and the state acquired the property. The Friends of Resaca organized support and raised money. Finally, the state appeared poised to build the visitors center after a November 2008 groundbreaking.
Plans, however, soon went south.
The Department of Natural Resources realized it did not have the money to finish the project.
State parks spokeswoman Kim Hatcher says the FY09 appropriations for the Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites Division were $27.4 million. After budget reductions announced last May, state appropriations were $16.8 million for FY10. The DNR, which curtailed hours and staff at many sites, retreated from the project.
Frustrated, Gordon County stepped in a few months ago and took over, agreeing to do the construction and staff and maintain the facility. The pact allows the county to keep all revenue.
“We are seeing a trend to [such] partnerships when possible,” Hatcher says.
She cited the state’s decision to turn over the Jefferson Davis Memorial Historic Site to Irwin County. Georgia’s FY09 cost to operate Jeff Davis was $125,061, at a loss of $105,696. The state no longer has to fund the site since Irwin took over.
Gordon officials say the state originally allotted $5 million for the project, but diverted funds to other projects, including one in Cobb County. But Ms. Hatcher told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the amount always was $3.7 million and about $400,000 of it already has been spent on surveying.
The 600-acre tract is shaped like a fish hook. Some of it is in wetlands, and the U.S. Army Corps ordered the county to move the location of the planned visitors center.
Because of the wetlands, Gordon must build both a nearly 1-mile road and the visitors center on a raised surface. Phase 2, which is years away, will include a trail or trails.
“The [Confederate] entrenchments are in pristine condition,” Padgett says. Federal trenches are on a protected easement.
The Friends of Resaca, which gave $66,000 for Fort Wayne, will help with fund-raising and volunteer at the park. The City of Resaca has pledged $200,000 and Calhoun is expected to pitch in.
Officials said the 7,100-square-foot modern visitors center will host a 20-minute movie and include exhibits, including some loaned or given by members of the Friends of Resaca. Padgett hopes it will be open by summer 2011.
“It’s not going to be boring,” says Padgett. A group of supporters has visited four or five other Civil War sites in the region to look at their exhibits. “This is the closest we’ve been. I’m real optimistic.”
The county has to follow state directives on the visitors center, limiting how much cost it can trim. As it stands, site work, a septic system, the visitors center and the road have an estimated price tag of $4.1 million, according to the architecht. Buying exhibits and the architect’s fee bring the project total close to $5 million.
Dowling says the “county could go cheap on the exhibits, but that is why people come in the first place and back again.”
The cost of maintaining and operating the park is an estimated $100,000 to $200,000.
If the county charges $3 per person and 100,000 patrons stop there each year, then it will more than cover that expense. “I don’t see us losing money on that facility,” Long says.
Chickmauga/Chattanooga and Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park are the closest major Civil War sites.
The former saw nearly 1 million visitors in 2008 and is 8 miles off Interstate 75. Kennesaw, in suburban Atlanta had about 1.4 million visitors in 2009. The vast majority are local recreational patrons using its trails. A small minority are interested in the historical aspects. Driving distance is about 2.5 miles from I-75 and through several traffic lights.
Weddle says Chickamauga includes the story of the Atlanta Campaign. “Resaca is one of the better examples because it is still there.”
Currently, rangers tell Chickamauga visitors that there is a battle site in Resaca. “We do not promote it as an educational place because there is not one [a visitors center] yet.”
That will change if the Resaca plan becomes reality.
“When the time comes we will more aggressively include the visitors center as a place to stop,” Weddle says.
There has been no formal study on expected visitation and the economic impact of Resaca Battlefield. But the upcoming sesquicentennial is expected to bring a boost to national and state Civil War sites.
Officials claim historical tourists generate about $7.38 in extra revenue for every direct dollar spent at a site.
Beth Grubbs of the Chamber of Commerce says the group “wholeheartedly” backs the plan and foresees new hotel rooms, restaurants and gift shops.
She and Long think the county could get an economic windfall of $3 million to $4 million a year.
County Administrator Dowling this month is drawing up details and will select the top 5 out of 15 qualifying companies to bid on the project. The state has given Gordon the option of walking away if bids are too high.
Commissioner Long is feeling the tug of building and not building.
“I think this is a project that should go forward,” he says, citing tourist dollars, hotels and restaurants the county has been lacking.
But Long also says he doesn’t want to use general funds on the park.
He says the move to cut employees holidays and retirement match was a “no brainer” because he didn’t want to go the other route of cutting 21 positions. “These are tough decisions to make when it affects people.”
“I foresee this board will not go forward if [the project] goes over state allotment” of $3.3 million, says Long. “I’m optimistic we have construction companies who can do it for what we have.”
Like others interviewed for this article, Long is unhappy with Georgia for not completing the project. He says commissioners may ask Georgia for additional funding.
Ken Padgett of the Friends of Resaca said the state has missed an opportunity. And he expressed frustration with how long the effort has gone on.
“We’ve been beating around the bush 15 years when the war took five,” he says.
More about the Friends of Resaca
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