Fort Ticonderoga In Trouble

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Fort Ticonderoga, in upstate New York, saw bloody action in the French and Indian Wars and the Revolutionary Wars But now the privately owned museum and battleground is fighting for its own existence. The fort could be forced to shut down or sell off key artifacts.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

One of the country's most important historic sites is in financial trouble. Fort Ticonderoga in Upstate New York has fallen so deeply into debt that it may be forced to auction part of its priced collection, or even close. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN: On a blustery afternoon, the visitor center at Fort Ticonderoga is jammed with tourists. Nick Westbrook, the museum's executive director, says a lot of these visitors think the museum is publicly funded.

Mr. NICK WESTBROOK (Executive Director, Fort Ticonderoga): People come asking if their National Park Service passports get stamped.

MANN: In fact, Fort Ticonderoga and its 5,000-acre grounds are privately owned. The nonprofit pays its way with ticket sales and donations.

Reenactors in period costumes march in to the arch of the high, gray stone walls.

(Soundbite of music)

Ticonderoga isn't as famous as Gettysburg or (unintelligible), but bloody fighting on these slopes shaped North American history. The fort played a pivotal role in the French and Indian War and again during the American Revolution. Ethan Allen fought here, and so did Benedict Donald(ph). Now, Westbrook and his staff are caught in a new battle over money.

Mr. WESTBROOK: We need at least $1 million, preferably three. And I'd like to try to get that accomplished this fall.

MANN: Other museums across the country have struggled in recent years.

Chuck LeCount, president of the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums, says keeping a huge facility like Ticonderoga afloat is hugely expensive.

Mr. CHUCK LECOUNT (President, Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums): Maintaining the buildings is a big challenge, as well as maintaining large interpretive staff, which really bring a large collection of buildings alive.

MANN: Despite a 30 percent drop in attendance, Fort Ticonderoga was prospering, thanks in large part to the support of billionaire Forrest Mars Jr., who made his fortune selling candy bars, like Snickers and Twix. With his wife who grew up in Ticonderoga, Mars helped to fund a new $23-million education center at the fort. But there was a falling out. Mars had declined to be interviewed, but in a escaping e-mail leaked last month to the media, he accused the museum's staff of mismanagement and cancelled all future donations.

The fort's board president responded with a memo also leaked, warning that $2.5 million in debt might force the historic site to shut down. Executive Director Nick Westbrook says all options are on the table.

Mr. WESTBROOK: Everything from hanging the closed sign out on the front gate to holding a giant big sale to raise the money, and everything in between.

MANN: The museum's board is also considering the sale of major objects from its collection, including a work by famed Hudson School painter Thomas Cole, valued at more than $1 million. Ticonderoga's collection is privately owned, but it's regulated by the state of New York, which has final say over any auctions. Museum expert Chuck LeCount says winning approval won't be easy.

Mr. LECOUNT: To deaccession collections to raise operating funds is not done often nor is it considered ethical behavior by most museum associations.

MANN: This controversy couldn't have come at a worst time. Fort Ticonderoga is marking the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War. And after years of stagnation, attendance had been rising, up 10 percent so far this summer.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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