"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Monday, March 15, 2010

THE JOHN BROWN FARM: The Best Strategy is to Keep All NYS Parks & Sites Open--Naj Wikoff (12 March '10)

About 200 people attended the NYS Office of Parks Recreation & Historic Places (OPRHP) regional meeting (Yonkers to Ausable Forks) to discuss their situation (cuts they have sustained over the past 4 years), why they selected the agencies they did for recommended cuts, ways of staving off the cuts, and next steps. Martha Swan, Brendan Mills and I represented the John Brown Farm. We left with every single person in the hall knowing where John Brown lived and is buried – a point echoed on National Public Radio as we journeyed north.

Decision Making Process

Carol Ash, the commissioner of OPRHP, said she made the decision on what to cut based strictly on what brought in the most money; which meant that parks and recreational facilities did way better than historical sites, which angered many in the room as a major mandate of the department is historical preservation; indeed, her proposed closing marked the first time any historic site would be closed in the department’s 125 year history (none were closed, indeed many added, during the Depression).

So from our standpoint, she did not consider the historic significance of John Brown, that this is hallowed ground, that our commemoration was the beginning of the nation's 150th commemoration of the Civil War, or that it was one of the few sites that addresses the issue of slavery. Basically she said if a golf course takes in more money it was more worthy of saving in her eyes.

It was pointed out it would have been far better, as is done by the NYS Council of the Arts, to have involved the various regions and representatives of the variety of programs served in the process, and taken from parks, recreation and historic facilities equally – then the choices, equally hard, would have been fairly made and made with consideration to attendance, money, significance and other factors. It was pointed out her approach set the historic community against the agency, called into question the department’s ability to make decisions by legislators, demoralized staff, set a bad precedent and failed to follow the principles of open government – all of which makes harder to make the case for supporting the agency. Many of the deputy chairs got the idea - not sure she clearly understood the level of damage she did. Be as that may, we all agreed that we need to move forward together to keep all the sites open, and make changes in the agency later.

The Challenge

88 state parks and historic sites would be closed, with service reductions at an additional 43 sites. The cost of closing the sites – preserving the artifacts, etc., has not been determined.

The Goal

The goal is to get the Legislature to put back in 11.3 million, which will keep all historic and other sites open, and still leave the Department with total cuts of around 30 percent of its budget ($46 million), still disproportionably higher than many other agencies. It was agreed that the three most effective means is through personal pitches, mailed letters (not email), and phone calls to the staff. In terms of letters, the most effective are from school kids, as well as non-traditional users, i.e. for historic sites x-country skiing, biking and other organizations that use the grounds for exercise.

State-wide, the parks & historic sites attract 57 million visitors, generate $1.9 billion in economic activity and provide 20,000 jobs. They are heavily used by the middle class as affordable vacations – indeed, overall attendance is up 2 million over last year. They foster health and fitness – indeed an important issue in this day of rising rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity in children.

Strategy

It was agreed that any offers at this time for any town or friends group or other agency to protect isolated sites creates opportunities for legislators to duck their collective responsibility to keep them all open – thus any such suggestion is counter productive at this time.
It was agreed that the next two weeks will be especially critical to generate mail and media attention, to people’s elected representatives, and the Assembly, Senate leadership and the Governor (he still has the power of the veto).

That social networks should be used to the extent possible to generate support for the sites.
That, assuming the 11.3 million is restored, that NYS OPRHP decision-making process must change, must include the regional directors and representatives of agencies served, and that a state-wide alliance of Friends groups must be established.

Foot Note

Martha and I pumped a lot of energy into the meeting, helped clarify priorities, and helped people reframe the case. We also received great praise for the tremendous media attention the John Brown commemoration generated, the quality of the programming presented last December, and the visibility of the recent advocacy effort on behalf of the Farm.

Thanks

Naj

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