From the current issue of National Journal, we have the following article on John Latschar’s reign at Gettysburg:
A New Battle Rages At Gettysburg
Gettysburg National Military Park had a $103 million makeover, but conflict at the iconic site continues.
by Edward T. Pound
Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009
GETTYSBURG, Pa. — In August 1994, John A. Latschar arrived here to take over as superintendent of the Gettysburg National Military Park, site of the most momentous battle of the Civil War. The longtime National Park Service ranger and decorated Vietnam veteran was appalled by what he saw: a battlefield in need of restoration; a 307-foot, privately owned tourist observation tower, widely reviled, looming over the Soldiers’ National Cemetery where Union soldiers were laid to rest and where President Lincoln delivered his immortal address in 1863; and a musty museum and visitor center that had seen far better days.
In the ensuing years, he began restoring important landscapes and led the Park Service’s effort to demolish the eyesore of the so-called National Tower, which was done in July 2000 and highly praised by the preservation community. He also set in motion plans for a new state-of-the-art museum and visitor center, using a partnership consisting of a private, nonprofit foundation and the Park Service.
As it turned out, that partnership venture became one of the most important arrangements in the Park Service system, which is always hard-pressed for cash. The new facility finally opened in April. A few months later, during a visit to the park, then — Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne called Latschar “a national treasure.”
A pretty rosy picture, to be sure. But the reality is a bit more complicated.
Latschar’s tenure at Gettysburg has been marked by repeated conflicts with some Civil War preservationists and others aghast at the mammoth size of the new museum-visitor center and by what they see as the lack of government supervision of the project and the Gettysburg Foundation, the Park Service’s controversial nonprofit partner. His plans for the park have led to clashes with battlefield guides, with local businesses, and with the family that contributed a famed collection of 38,000 artifacts to the park.
Now 61, Latschar gets things done. He is known within the Park Service for his “can-do” reputation — he loathes rules that get in the way — his mental toughness, and his ability to forge close relationships with higher-ups. But that tenacity can be a two-edged sword. To critics, he is someone more than willing to run over people who get in his way.
Behind the scenes, after Park Service staffers in Washington raised concerns in 2003 that a 139,000-square-foot museum and visitor center was too large and too expensive, Latschar went around them to a senior agency official who arranged a meeting with the director of the Park Service. The staffers were reprimanded, and a Park Service board swiftly approved the project’s comprehensive design, according to Latschar’s account of the incident. Without the approval, the project would have been delayed and might have required downsizing.
As the nation celebrates the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln this month, the long-running conflict at Gettysburg isn’t likely to end anytime soon. The heart of the conflict, to critics, boils down to this: promises made, promises not kept.
The museum-visitor center project initially carried a price tag of $39.3 million. In the end, it cost $103 million. While selling the public on its public-private partnership idea, the Park Service repeatedly maintained that the project would not need federal monies and would be financed solely with private donations, corporate sponsorships, and loans. That isn’t quite what happened. Over the years, Congress earmarked $15 million for the project — Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., arguably the king of pork on Capitol Hill, arranged the funding — and the state of Pennsylvania tossed in another $20 million.
And from the get-go, Park Service and Gettysburg Foundation officials did not envision charging an admission fee for visitors to view the museum’s exhibits and collection of world-famous artifacts. But only six months after opening the center in April and projecting an annual revenue shortfall of nearly $1.8 million, officials imposed an admission fee of $7.50. The “all-in-one” fee also allows visitors to view other park attractions. But as one critic of the new policy pointedly noted at a public meeting, according to The Gettysburg Times, “it would take 52,364 people paying $7.50 just to pay” the foundation president’s annual salary of $392,735.
Meanwhile, Latschar’s conduct has come under government scrutiny. Investigators from the Interior Department, which includes the Park Service, are reviewing, among other issues, whether he misused $8,700 in funds from the park and a private group for construction of a fence on 4 acres of parkland -adjacent to his home. His wife, Terry, uses the pasture to exercise her horses under a park permit. In an interview, Latschar said he was confident that investigators would determine that he did nothing improper.
Although the inquiry’s breadth is unclear, the investigators from Inspector General Earl Devaney’s office also contacted the Gettysburg Foundation; they didn’t question anyone and were provided with a list of contractors on the museum-visitor center project, according to foundation officials. Investigators declined to comment.
Latschar has faced other ethics issues as well. Last November, after announcing he would retire from the Park Service and take over the lucrative presidency of the Gettysburg Foundation, critics accused him of a conflict of interest. They cited his extensive dealings with the foundation as Gettysburg’s superintendent. Indeed, Latschar played an important role in planning the museum project and in the agreements that the Park Service struck with the foundation to operate the facility. Interior Department lawyers, in an opinion issued last month, strongly suggested that moving over to the foundation would constitute a conflict. Latschar decided to stay in his government position.
For many Americans, Gettysburg is sacred ground. Established in 1895, the 5,900-acre park 80 miles north of Washington remains a popular attraction; last year, about 1.5 million visitors viewed the ornate monuments and historical exhibits, walked the open ground, and climbed the stony hills where, on the first three days of July 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg unfolded in the pivotal clash of the Civil War. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army, seeking a decisive victory on Northern soil, was defeated by Union forces in a bloodbath that left 51,000 soldiers dead and wounded. In November, President Lincoln delivered his 272-word Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.
Gettysburg’s public-private partnership experiment is a model that other parks can use to preserve and improve resources and facilities, officials explained. The reason for the partnership is pretty straightforward: Much like a beggar on the street, the National Park Service needs money. Created in 1916, the agency has an annual budget of only $2.5 billion, a pittance considering it must manage and maintain some of the nation’s most precious assets — 391 parks, including 24 Civil War sites. The Park Service also has a staggering deferred-maintenance backlog of nearly $9 billion in projects.
In speeches drumming up public support for the Gettysburg partnership, Latschar described the Park Service’s problems succinctly: “Why are we broke? Most simply stated, both Congress and the American public are in a love affair with national parks — but are not willing to pay for the consequences of their devotion.”
As the Park Service declares on its website, public-private partnerships are “a way to get things done.” The chief of the agency’s partnership program, John Piltzecker, said in an e-mail response to National Journal’s questions that “there have been numerous instances of partners raising all or part of the funds needed to help the [Park Service] accomplish its mission, whether it was a new or improved facility, the rehabilitation of a trail system, or the enrichment of park programming.” These partners include nonprofits, companies, and volunteers.
The way Latschar and Gettysburg Foundation officials see it, the partnership has been an unmitigated success and a good deal for the public. Latschar’s many critics don’t agree. “Let me put it as simply as I can,” said Franklin Silbey, a former congressional investigator, a Civil War preservationist, and a longtime thorn in Latschar’s side. “Latschar and the Park Service have repeatedly misled the public. The new museum costs three times more than it was supposed to. They said they didn’t need federal funds, yet they got $15 million in federal earmarks. The old museum and its artifacts used to be free. Now the public has to pay $7.50 a head just to walk in the museum door. A for-profit vendor sells trinkets on sacred ground. Need I say more?”
In a three-and-a-half-hour interview at his offices in the new facility, Latschar said he has always been truthful with the public. “From the very first speech on this project in January, February 1995 to today, I have never misled the public about a single thing. Everything that I’ve ever said has been based upon the best [information] that I knew and the best I believed at the time. It turned out in a couple cases that what I believed didn’t happen the way we thought it would, but there’s been absolutely no deceit involved.”
Latschar, who has a Ph.D. in American history, said he enjoys wide support among Civil War historians, preservationists, and local business leaders. They understand, he said, that a desire to protect Gettysburg’s treasures and to provide the public with high-quality interpretation of the Gettysburg campaign and its consequences has always motivated him. Some critics, he said, “are not going to be happy until I am dismissed from this position in disgrace. It’s unfortunate that it has sunk to that level.”
The massive museum-visitor center, with its fieldstone building and barn-like structure, was designed to look like a big Pennsylvania farm. It is about a half mile south of, and below, the old visitor center that sits on historic Cemetery Ridge. Inside the new facility is a large lobby; 11 exhibit galleries, based on phrases from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; two theaters for viewing a 22-minute film, A New Birth of Freedom, narrated by actor Morgan Freeman; storage for artifacts; a library and reading room; a restaurant; and a book and gift shop. The center also houses the magnificent oil painting-in-the-round, known as the Cyclorama, which depicts “Pickett’s Charge” — Confederate Gen. George Pickett’s doomed advance on Cemetery Ridge that led to Lee’s crushing defeat. The restored painting measures 42 feet by 377 feet.
Under the Park Service’s agreement with the Gettysburg Foundation, the nonprofit owns the facility and receives significant revenues from its operations. Those revenues include some of the proceeds from the book and gift shop and a restaurant run by separate for-profit companies. The foundation also takes in all revenues from admission sales. The nonprofit must pay the operating and maintenance costs for the center — an arrangement, Latschar says, that saves the Park Service $300,000 annually — and retire $15 million in long-term debt. The agreement requires the foundation to donate the museum-visitor center and the land it sits on to the Park Service in 2028.
Initially known as the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Foundation, the nonprofit has had some esteemed board members; in the past decade they have included prominent Civil War historians and business leaders. Dick Thornburgh, the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and later U.S. attorney general, continues to serve on the board.
From the beginning, more than a decade ago, critics of the partnership arrangement viewed it as a profit-making scheme for private interests. Robert Kinsley, a major construction contractor from York, Pa., put the foundation together after the Park Service selected him to develop the museum-visitor center.
Kinsley and Latschar are close. Indeed, as chairman of the foundation, Kinsley asked Latschar to take over as the nonprofit’s president last year, only to be disappointed when ethics questions forced Latschar to step aside. Like Latschar, Kinsley has been a lightning rod for criticism: Critics say he profited from Gettysburg Foundation work on the museum-visitor center, a charge he strenuously denied in an interview with National Journal.
Kinsley, chairman and CEO of Kinsley Construction, has repeatedly said that philanthropy, not profit, has motivated him. The chairman of the Gettysburg Foundation since its inception, Kinsley has donated nearly $8.4 million to the nonprofit through his family foundation, his personal funds, and Kinsley-owned partnerships, according to foundation officials. The gifts have included cash, forgiven loans, and donated real estate. The contributions, the officials say, make Kinsley the largest private donor to the project; the next-biggest donor gave $4.5 million.
At the same time, Kinsley’s construction company and another family-owned company, LSC Design, worked on the development of the museum-visitor center. The foundation’s decision to use the Kinsley companies, Latschar said, was approved by Park Service officials in Washington.
According to the Gettysburg Foundation, it has paid the companies a total of $8,509,825 for their work on the project. The foundation said that Kinsley Construction was “reimbursed” $1,332,550 for supplying equipment, drawings, supplies, and other items to the project. It paid another $3,461,275 to Kinsley Construction for providing construction management “at cost” and at “no profit,” the foundation said. Additionally, the foundation has paid $3,716,000 to LSC Design, which is headed by one of Kinsley’s sons, Robert II. Those fees, the foundation said, covered architectural design work for the museum-visitor building and other services, including structural, traffic, and civil engineering.
The senior Kinsley acknowledges that LSC Design got the design work at his suggestion. He said he suggested that the board hire LSC Design when he realized that the foundation could save money by using the firm run by his son. After foundation lawyers and the Park Service signed off on the arrangement, Kinsley said, the board gave its approval. Kinsley said he recused himself from all board discussions on the issue. Moreover, foundation officials said that an auditing firm, independent of Kinsley, is reviewing his companies’ charges.
Apart from the museum project, Kinsley’s construction company has worked as a major subcontractor on two contracts awarded by the Park Service in 2007 to a New Jersey company, Puente Construction Enterprises. Puente, a minority contractor under a U.S. Small Business Administration program, was hired to repave 19 historic roads, repair a bridge, and replace deteriorating water lines in the Gettysburg park.
The Puente contracts were worth nearly $4.1 million. The minority firm paid Kinsley Construction $2.5 million as the principal subcontractor on the park work, according to Barbara Sardella, general counsel for the Kinsley firm. In the interview, Kinsley said that his company’s work as a subcontractor “has nothing to do with the museum.” Both he and Latschar said that the park superintendent played no role whatsoever in his firm’s getting the work.
As for the foundation payments to his companies on the museum project, Kinsley said he was not profiting from the arrangement. “I made a promise when I went to Gettysburg that I would not profit from this or anything else in Gettysburg because of this,” Kinsley said. “I am very happy I have been able to contribute to Gettysburg the way I have. I just wish [critics] would do the same.”
The Price Of Preservation
Kinsley and park officials said that the ambitious museum project allowed them to convey to the public much more clearly the Gettysburg story and the battle’s consequences. The old facility, they said, did not do justice to the historical importance and emotional power of Gettysburg. “We only had one chance to do this,” Latschar explained, “and we wanted to do it right, as befits this hallowed ground.”
Even at its original cost estimate of $39.3 million in 2001, the Gettysburg project was the most expensive Park Service visitor center in the works. The Government Accountability Office reviewed 80 visitor center projects under construction or renovation and found that the “average cost to build a visitor project was $6.7 million.” But Gettysburg Foundation officials say that the report is misleading when applied to their project. “If you just looked at our visitor center piece of it, it’s probably not much more than that,” the foundation’s president, Robert C. Wilburn, told National Journal. “The real expensive part is the museum and the Cyclorama [painting]. We spent $15 million on the [restoration of] the Cyclorama painting alone.”
The Cyclorama is a historical icon painted in the 1880s by French master Paul Philippoteaux and a team of artists and is considered central to the park’s story line. The painting’s restoration is a prime example of why the cost of the project increased so dramatically — and why federal funds ended up in the mix. Back in 1997, the restoration was projected to cost $5 million. By 2002, the estimate had jumped to $6.6 million. By the time the restoration was completed and the painting was moved to the new museum-visitor center from the old facility, the cost had skyrocketed to $15 million — all paid for with congressional earmarks arranged by Rep. Murtha.
Other increases came from the cost of construction, design services, fundraising, exhibits, and landscape restoration. The foundation also expanded its role in the park. It merged with another foundation, which had long supported the park, and it recently spent $1.9 million to acquire an 80-acre farm, “protecting the historically significant site from private development, according to a foundation press release.
Wilburn, who formerly served as president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, makes no apologies for the cost, or the size, of the Gettysburg center. “What I have said before,” he explained during an interview in his second-floor offices in the center, “is that I regret that we weren’t able to raise money to make it even better.” Wilburn went on, “The restaurant is too small for the summer, the gift shop gets jammed… it is not oversized.” Most visitors and professional reviewers have given the new center a big thumbs-up.
Wilburn also defended the decision to charge visitors an “all-in-one” fee of $7.50 to see the museum artifacts and exhibits, along with viewing the Cyclorama painting and A New Birth of Freedom. The foundation, he said, had planned to keep the museum free and charge a $12 fee to see the painting and film. But shortly after opening the center, he said, foundation officials and the Park Service realized that revenues couldn’t cover expenses. “We have had almost no negative comments about it,” he said. “People seem to think it’s a real bargain.”
That’s a difficult argument to make to descendants of Gettysburg resident John Rosensteel who, at the age of 16 in July 1863, began collecting artifacts from the battlefield just days after the guns fell silent.
Over the years, the Rosensteel family acquired Gettysburg and Civil War artifacts. The 38,000-piece collection, valued in the tens of millions of dollars, was donated to the government in 1971 by George and Emily Rosensteel. Pamela Jones, their grandchild and a resident of Gettysburg, said that the park should never have implemented a fee to see the artifacts. “The gift was made to the American people,” she said in an interview, “in the hope that the artifacts would always be viewed for free.” The collection includes the saddle cover used by President Lincoln when he rode on horseback from the town of Gettysburg to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, as well rifles, cannons, drums, uniforms, maps, photographs, and paintings.
According to Latschar, the old visitor center, which was built by George Rosensteel in 1920, will soon meet the wrecking ball, and demolition plans are also in the works for the cylindrical building that used to house the Cyclorama painting. But a group that favors preserving significant modern architecture is attempting in a federal lawsuit to block the demolition. The Cyclorama building was designed by the late modernist architect Richard Neutra, whose son, Dion, is a plaintiff in the case. Both buildings sit on Cemetery Ridge, one of the most historically significant battlefield sites in the park. The plan is restore the landscape to its 1863 appearance.
Speaking His Mind
Latschar operates the park on a relatively small budget. Along with the adjacent Eisenhower National Historic Site, the home of the late President Eisenhower, he has about $7.6 million annually to work with. In one four-year period, though, Congress gave him some extra money — $1.1 million over a four-year period — to help with historic landscape rehabilitation.
Latschar’s superintendent’s reports provide details on the park’s operations and funding — and a forum he uses to speak his mind. He made the reports available to National Journal, explaining that they were “a long-cherished tradition in the Park Service.” Latschar went on: “Historians start there. By tradition, it is the one report where the superintendent can say exactly what he thinks is important to put on the record. Nobody can change it. A copy goes straight to the National Archives.”
The reports offer frank assessments of some critics, even the few who emerged occasionally in Congress. In his 1999 report, Latschar suggests that then-Rep. Ron Klink, a Democrat who opposed the museum project, was nothing but a political opportunist. He wrote that Klink, who was running for the Senate against the incumbent, Rick Santorum, “was virtually unknown in the central part of the state”‘ and “apparently decided that he needed a ‘name recognition’ issue.”
At the same time, Latschar heaped praise in his reports on Santorum, a big supporter of the project, once even describing the Republican as a “hero.” Latschar wasn’t too happy, though, when the GAO reviewed the partnership arrangement in 2001. He wrote that the GAO “seemed obsessed with what the partner [Kinsley] gets out of the partnership,” adding: “When told ‘nothing but the good feeling of making a difference,’ they were obviously unconvinced, a sad indication that philanthropy is not well understood inside the Washington Beltway.”
Latschar describes how Murtha repeatedly arranged for earmarks to fund the Cyclorama restoration, and details the historic landscape rehabilitation at the park, including the removal of “nonhistoric” woods, the replanting of orchards, the construction of a historic fence, and the removal of a “major nonhistoric structure” that once housed an automobile dealership.
He doesn’t let roadblocks stand in his way. Witness his dispute with the construction management staff of the Park Service’s Development Advisory Board over the comprehensive design for the museum-visitor project. In the end, Latschar prevailed, but had he failed at the DAB level, the project could not have gone forward without being scaled back; the board must review and sign off on all major construction projects.
Latschar, in an annual report, described what happened: “Showing a human foible… all too common, the staff of the DAB seemed overly concerned that the Museum Foundation was building too large a complex and spending too much money, even though the Foundation was taking all the risks, and the [National Park Service] was taking none.” In October 2003, he wrote, “we had a highly unsatisfactory call with the Washington Office construction management staff. The staff of the Museum Foundation was insulted by the unprofessional treatment and skepticism they received from the NPS staff. I was embarrassed.”
Latschar contacted a senior Park Service official who arranged for a meeting between the foundation and Fran Mainella, then the director of the Park Service. “The Director apologized to the Foundation,” Latschar wrote, “and promised to be personally present at the Foundation’s presentation to the Development Advisory Board on November 4, 2003.”
Mainella, Latschar, and the DAB and some of its staff members attended that subsequent meeting in Washington. According to Latschar’s report, “Rob Kinsley, the project architect, presented a superb power-point presentation” detailing how the design was developed. “There were relatively few questions asked, and none with any merit,” Latschar wrote. “In the end, the project was approved.”
Latschar makes no apologies for going over the heads of the DAB’s staff. He told National Journal that Mainella “reprimanded” the staffers for insulting the Kinsleys and others involved in the project.
History As Judge
Now, with Interior’s IG reviewing the Gettysburg partnership and the museum-visitor center project, Latschar, at least outwardly, exudes an air of confidence. He said he was recently questioned by investigators who had “just swept up” every allegation “and decided it made sense to ask the questions.” They mostly wanted to know about “the birth and evolution and the maturation of the partnership.” The investigators asked him, he said, about the Gettysburg Foundation’s use of companies affiliated with the senior Kinsley, the foundation’s chairman, and “a few other odds and ends.”
Latschar acknowledged that investigators are also exploring whether he had misused park and nonprofit funds to replace a wire fence around 4 acres of park land at the back of his 2-acre home. His wife uses the pasture for her two adult horses and a yearling under a “special-use permit” issued by the park. The Park Service replaced three sections of the fence in 2002; it replaced another section late last year. The total cost was $8,700.
Under the park’s “agricultural lease program,” Latschar said, Terry Latschar pays $75 a year for the permit, which he said was consistent with similar arrangements in the park. His wife first obtained the permit in August 1999, or two years before the couple was married. Under the arrangement, John Latschar said, she is responsible for maintaining the park pasture and repairing the wire fence. “But when it comes time that the fence is beyond repair and needs to be replaced,” he said, the permit requires the Park Service to replace the fence. “That’s the Park Service responsibility,” he explained.
Indeed, the permit does require her to maintain the fence but it does not contain a clause requiring the park to replace the fence. When asked about this in a later interview, Latschar acknowledged that there’s nothing in his wife’s permit requiring the park to replace the wire fence. Nonetheless, he said, the “practice” of the park has been to replace deteriorated fencing in such cases. In a follow-up e-mail, he cited other instances in which the park had replaced fencing on parkland used by other permit holders. The park, Latschar said, acts under broad authority to “preserve resources and, or, protect visitors.”
The park spent $3,910 to replace “505 feet of No Climb Horse Fence” last year, according to the contract with the contractor who did the job. An explanation from the park’s maintenance division says that “the fence is an emergency replacement as a very large section of the fence has been destroyed from a horse being entangled in the fence.”
Earlier, in March 2002, Latschar used funds from a nonprofit to replace 1,126 feet of the pasture fence. The $4,800 job was billed to Eastern National, a nonprofit that operated the bookstore in the old visitor center and provided funds for preserving the park. The purchase order includes Latschar’s note that the new fencing will “prevent livestock from getting out in the vicinity of Sedgwick equestrian monument.”
Latschar said he did not “pressure” the park’s maintenance chief to replace the fencing and there was “not a frigging chance” that he had acted improperly.
Even today, 146 years after Americans spilled blood on this hilly farm country, controversy at Gettysburg never seems more than a musket shot away. And John Latschar, a man whose self-confidence and take-no-prisoners style brings to mind the brash generals of the armies that clashed here, is convinced that history will treat him well.
Asked to list his accomplishments, he ticks off the removal of the National Tower, the landscape restoration program, and the partnerships formed with the Gettysburg Foundation and local townspeople. His legacy, Latschar is convinced, is to have helped preserve a transcendent moment in the nation’s past and literally enshrine the battle in its rightful place as a turning point in the Civil War.
However his tenure at Gettysburg concludes, Latschar clearly doesn’t mind being on the hot seat. But like everything connected to Gettysburg and the Civil War, the debate over actions, consequences, and meaning never comes to an end.
Something continues to smell bad about all of this…..Scridb filter