Economy Forces Closure of Historic Homes -- Heritage at Risk?

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WAPAKONETA, Ohio (AP) - Houston, we have a problem.
Neil Armstrong's spacesuits, a capsule he piloted, the long johns James Lovell wore on the aborted Apollo 13 moon mission and other artifacts in the museum named for Armstrong will be off-limits to the public for one week this spring because of budget cuts.
Ditto for President Warren Harding's Marion home and tomb in central Ohio and Fort Meigs, a log structure

WAPAKONETA, Ohio (AP) - Houston, we have a problem.

Neil Armstrong's spacesuits, a capsule he piloted, the long johns James Lovell wore on the aborted Apollo 13 moon mission and other artifacts in the museum named for Armstrong will be off-limits to the public for one week this spring because of budget cuts.

Ditto for President Warren Harding's Marion home and tomb in central Ohio and Fort Meigs, a log structure built on the Maumee River in 1813 to protect northwest Ohio and Indiana from invading British soldiers.

Several states are temporarily closing historic sites as the slowdown in the economy, higher unemployment and turmoil in the national financial markets hurt tax revenues.

History buffs are unhappy that such live links to heritage will be removed from view, even if only for a short time. And some worry that the one-week hiatus from history is only the beginning.

William Laidlaw Jr., executive director of the Ohio Historical Society, regrets the move, saying it is necessary to avoid layoffs.

"The real stuff of history is found in the stories, artifacts and places that give meaning to the past," he said. "There is no substitute for that. Preserving access to these resources is the most important thing we do."

In all, 14 of Ohio's 58 historic sites will be closed the week of March 28.

In Illinois, 13 of the state's 28 historic sites will be shut down at the end of November through at least June unless Gov. Rod Blagojevich approves proposed funding to keep them open. Of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency's 90 workers, 32 will be laid off.

Yearly attendance at the states' sites slated for closure ranged from 4,381 visitors to 100,371.

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The Arizona Historical Society has closed the research library at its museum in Tempe and sharply reduced hours at the research library in Tucson.

"This wasn't something we wanted to do," said Blagojevich spokesman Brian Williamsen. "But in the end it was the responsible decision that had to be made given that there was a budget in front of us that didn't have the revenue."

Many states dealing with falling revenues are projecting budget deficits of 2 percent to 3 percent.

Illinois closed a handful of historic sites in the early 1990s due to budget cuts. The current cuts are coming as the state is preparing a high-profile celebration of the 200th birthday of native son Abraham Lincoln, although money was found to keep most of the Lincoln sites open and expand hours at some.

The Lincoln Log Cabin near Charleston, the reconstructed cabin Lincoln's father built which had nearly 83,000 visitors in 2007, would be a casualty, however.

"This couldn't come at a worse time," said Erik Hostetter, a union official who organized a 60-person protest outside the governor's mansion in September. "It's a pretty mindless, stupid way to balance the budget."

States around the nation are making tough budget decisions. In Mississippi, cuts are being made to the arts commission and corrections department. New York Gov. David Paterson is calling for cuts in the growth in school aid and for an increase in tuition at state colleges.

Historic sites are easy budget-cutting targets because there are so many of them and they are so visible, said Terry Davis, president of the American Association for State and Local History.

"It's going on everywhere," Davis said. "Nobody is quite sure - long term - what all of this means."

The Ohio Historical Society had 417 full-time equivalent jobs in 2001. Today, there are 270. The society's budget will be cut 4.75 percent this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

The money troubles may persist.

The Ohio Office of Budget and Management has told the organization to prepare hypothetical budgets for 2010 and 2011 with a further 10 percent funding reduction. In Arizona, the governor's office has asked the historical society to show what the consequences would be of an additional 7.5 percent budget cut.

To save money and preserve access, the Ohio group has established local partnerships for the operation of 29 historic sites and plans to accelerate that process. But the society reduced access at the 29 sites it manages by two days a week this year, which cut into admissions, parking fees and merchandise sales.

Host towns are hurt by closings and reduced hours.

"For a lot of these smaller communities, these historic sites were huge income generators," said Hostetter, staff representative for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 in Springfield, Ill. "That's a huge blow to a lot of these economies."

Vandalia (Ill.) Mayor Ricky Gottman estimates that closing the Vandalia Statehouse where Lincoln was a state representative will cost his community as much as $50,000 a year in sales and other taxes.

Admission fees and sales this year at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum, which opened in 1972 in the astronaut's hometown of Wapakoneta, produced $206,527.

Greg Marjenin, 56, of Cleveland, took off work from the Cleveland Clinic and made a seven-hour round trip earlier this month to visit the museum.

"A place like this I'm sure has national if not international interest," Marjenin said. "To actually see real things means more than seeing a picture on the Internet.

"With a spacesuit, you can just imagine what it would be like for someone to be wearing one of those or to see a capsule to see how cramped it actually is."

Rebecca Macwhinney, historic site manager, said she and her six fellow staffers worry that the museum's one-week closing in March may be just the beginning.

"It's so important for this museum to remain open to share the vision, to intrigue people's minds," said.

On the Net:

Ohio Historical Society: http://www.ohiohistory.org/

Illinois State Historical Society: http://www.historyillinois.org/

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. Active hyperlinks have been inserted by AOL.

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