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Commentary: Illinois Legislature should reverse closure of sites and parks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 10, 2008 - Sept. 30 may be the last day of public access to the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Ill., Is that outrageous enough?

Well, that's also the last day for Fort de Chartres near Prairie du Rocher and the Carl Sandburg State Historic Site in Galesburg. Thirteen state historic sites in Illinois close that day, leaving 34 employees out of work.

The list of state historic sites that will close reads like a what's-what of the state's heritage; the closings affect sites connected to Frank Lloyd Wright and Carl Sandburg, to French colonization and to a former state capitol - and the Vandalia Statehouse.

One month later, 11 state parks will close and 39 additional state employees will be laid off. All of these closures come through the act of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who, in a supposed attempt to balance the state's budget, could be throwing many of the state's most important physical and natural resources into permanent crisis.

Of course, Blagojevich and administrators at the Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency tell us that the cuts last only through the end of the year. The state legislature can restore the cuts when it passes the 2009 budget, says the governor coyly. In other words, if you don't get your beloved sites back, blame your state representative, not the governor.

The Illinois House, however, voted on Sept. 10 to restore the cuts, but the Senate still has to act and it's not scheduled to be in session until November. 

This politically cynical act won't even save that much money. The cuts in the state historic sites and parks net a savings of $19.5 million a year in a total state budget of $49.7 billion. Accompanying these cuts is $2 million cut from the Department of Family and Child Services -- again, an amount that seems arbitrarily selected. Blagojevich could have cut across the board or eliminated new projects such as the Mississippi River Bridge at St. Louis, to which Illinois is pledging nearly $50 million each year between 2010 and 2016. Instead, Blagojevich dug deep into historic sites and parks -- and for good reason.

The Illinois state historic sites program is one of the best in the Midwest. The state maintains more than 60 sites that attract 2.5 million visitors a year. In some parts of the state, historic sites are the backbone of tourism, bringing visitors who spend money at bed-and-breakfast inns, restaurants, gas stations and shops. In that light, the cuts are quite deliberately vicious. 

In Randolph County, just southeast of St. Louis, three sites are being closed: Fort de Chartres, Fort Kaskaskia and the Pierre Menard Home. Fort de Chartres and the Menard Home have achieved National Historic Landmark status, this country's highest recognition of cultural significance.

Their closure takes away a small but thriving tourism to these sites. St. Louis groups are frequently found at these sites, especially Fort de Chartres. Without state help, the fort might have been a pile of ruins and the early creole heritage of Prairie du Rocher a bit of lore. Through state management, the fort has fostered intensive interest in that heritage, which has benefited the village nearby.

Likewise, state ownership of the Cahokia Courthouse in Cahokia, another site closing at the end of this month, has allowed thousands of St. Louis students to see a real-life example of the French colonial vertical-log construction that is now gone from the city of St. Louis. Illinois has been a good steward of the rare and highly significant creole resources in its state historic sites program. But as of Oct. 1, of these sites, only the Jarrot Mansion in Cahokia will remain open, and it doesn't have regular public hours.

There goes a whole sector of southeastern Illinois tourism, with no certainty of what will become of the buildings. Or the people who lost jobs. Or the businesses depending on that tourism. Or the people who work in those businesses. Or the money that the tourism brings to countless communities.

Blagojevich surely counts on the popularity and economic importance of these sites to spur people to complain to their legislators, who will take the heat for the closures. Yet his action is really a shot in the dark; by cutting these sites he's suggesting that they are expendable. The legislature could come back with a balanced budget that restores funding to these sites, but it could also take these cuts as a baseline for further cuts. The lobbies for interstate highway construction, life sciences grants and other big business are far more organized and well-funded than the lobbies for historic preservation and small-town tourism.

Yet now is the time for educators, officials, historians, business owners and all who benefit from the state historic sites to rally together to restore funding -- not just for the big-name sites, such as the Dana-Thomas House, but for each and every one of the 13 sites. A state as vast and varied as Illinois should stand by a system of historic sites that truly provide public access to a wide range of the places that define the history of the state.

St. Louisans benefit from the proximity of sites like the Cahokia Courthouse and Fort de Chartres, and we who live on the Missouri side of the river should work across the river to safeguard historic places that bring a strong economic and educational benefit to our entire region.

Without restored funding, some of these sites may be closed forever. Others may disappear. Some may find new owners, but public access won't be guaranteed. Illinois faced this crisis with its historic sites before. When Fort de Chartres (below) seemed destined to become bottom-land dust, Illinois purchased it in 1913. When the Dana-Thomas House was up for sale in 1985, Illinois bought it, restored it and opened it to the public. Surely that same sense of stewardship is alive today.

Michael R. Allen is assistant director of Landmarks Association of St. Louis (www.landmarks-stl.org) and editor of Ecology of Absence (http://ecoabsence.blogspot.com ). 

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