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Friday, September 5, 2008

More on Fort Ticonderoga

The article I posted on a few days ago was actually written back in July. This past Wednesday there was a new article written about the goings on with the Fort. I thought I would share this new article here with you. It comes to us from the New York Times.

Historic Fort Sustains a Breach
Published: September 3, 2008

TICONDEROGA, N.Y. — Perched on a wind-swept bluff above Lake Champlain, Fort Ticonderoga has a timeless presence. Its thick stone walls appear impenetrable, more than two centuries after being contested, variously, by French, British and American troops.

This summer, the national historic landmark — called Fort Ti for short — began its 100th season as an attraction open to the public with two causes for celebration: the unveiling of a splashy new education center, and an increase in visitors, reversing a long decline.

But instead of celebrating, its caretakers issued an S.O.S., warning that the fort, one of the state’s most important historic sites, was struggling for survival, largely because of a breach between the fort’s greatest benefactor — an heir of the Mars candy fortune — and its executive director.

The problem is money: The fort had a shortfall of $2.5 million for the education center. The president of the board that governs the fort, which is owned by a nonprofit organization, said in an internal memo this summer that the site would be “essentially broke” by the end of the year. The memo proposed a half-dozen solutions, including the sale of artwork from the group’s collection.

“The fort is facing a financial crisis, which puts its very existence in question,” the president, Peter S. Paine Jr., said in the memo, which first surfaced in local newspapers last month.

The economic troubles are compounded by the recent falling-out between the fort’s longtime executive director, Nicholas Westbrook, and benefactors the fort had come to rely upon: Forrest E. Mars Jr. and his wife, Deborah Clarke Mars, a Ticonderoga native. It was the couple’s idea to build the education center.

In a February e-mail message that ended up being reported by the news media, Mr. Mars told Mr. Westbrook that the “ride is over” and, in case there was any doubt about what he meant, that the couple would “not be writing any further checks.” He chastised Mr. Westbrook for making “nasty comments about Mars money” and accused him of “not communicating and running away from decisions.”

At the July opening of the new center, officially called the Deborah Clarke Mars Education Center, Mrs. Mars, who had abruptly resigned as the fort’s board president in late January, was conspicuously absent. In recent weeks, board members have squabbled over who is to blame for the rupture as they try to solve the fort’s pressing financial problems.

“Running off our chief benefactors and putting us in this situation in the 12th hour before the opening of the new education center is unforgivable,” said one board member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the awkwardness of continuing to work with Mr. Westbrook.

For his part, Mr. Westbrook, who serves at the pleasure of the board of trustees, said in an interview on Aug. 20 that he had no immediate plans to leave, explaining that it had been his dream since the age of 6, when he first visited Fort Ticonderoga, to one day lead it. He has been executive director for 20 years.

In a recent news release, however, Mr. Paine announced that Mr. Westbrook “has reiterated to the board his desire to retire in the course of next year as part of the planned, orderly succession.”

Mr. Westbrook declined to comment on his relationship with the Marses, saying only that they have “been enormously generous and supportive, and I consider them very, very good friends.” But of Mrs. Mars’s tenure as the fort’s board president, he said, “To be a hands-on president of this organization from a house in Wyoming or from the south of France is very difficult.”

It is not clear what prompted the breach between Mr. Westbrook and the Marses, but Mr. Mars’s e-mail message suggested that perhaps the relationship had grown too cozy. “I think you should remember,” he wrote to Mr. Westbrook, “that: a) Deb and I helped pay to send your son to Northwood,” a boarding school in Lake Placid, N.Y. He continued: “b) we offered and had your other son here in Wyoming for an apprenticeship working with iron and steel; c) your vacations to Antarctica and other ones were paid for by us.”

Efforts to reach Mr. Mars, who is often described in news reports as a reclusive billionaire, were unsuccessful. A caretaker at the family’s ranch in Wyoming said that he and Mrs. Mars were away. Mr. Mars did not respond to messages left at Mars Inc., where he retired as chief executive in 1999.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Paine, the new board president, said that he “supported both Mr. Westbrook and the Marses.”

From the perspective of some board members, the friendship had seemed a godsend — that is, until it soured. While some 500 people made donations to the $23 million construction project, which included the new education center and upgrading utilities throughout the fort, the Marses contributed well over half the cost.

“The fact that they left,” said Mr. Paine of the Marses, “was unhappy and unfortunate and regrettable. There was no formal pledge by them to cover the $2.5 million, but they had been extremely generous and the hope was that they would fund at least some of that as part of their ongoing support. Their departure was not helpful.”

The airing of internal disagreements has unsettled the fort’s supporters, among them descendants of William Ferris Pell, who bought the fort’s ruins in 1820 and built a country estate, called the Pavilion, a cannon shot away on the shores of Lake Champlain. In 1909, another generation of the family restored the fort and opened it to the public.

“The fort has always been a low-key private institution, and the Marses are obsessively private people, and the fact that this has happened has caused a lot of distress,” said Deborah Pell Dunning, who visited her grandparents at the Pavilion as a child and who is writing a book about Fort Ticonderoga and the Pell family.

Since a meeting of the board of trustees in July, the fort has narrowed the $2.5 million gap to $1 million by dipping into its endowment. “We used our rainy-day money, but we need that money back because that’s what we use to run the business,” Mr. Paine said.

The shortfall may not seem like much, Mr. Paine said, but for an institution with an endowment of less than $5 million, “that is an enormous number.” In addition, the fort has an outstanding construction loan of $1.7 million.

Among the strategies for getting the fort back on sound financial footing, as outlined in Mr. Paine’s memo, is the sale of artwork. The fort owns several paintings, including one by Thomas Cole, and numerous valuable artifacts. The most extreme solution on the list was closing the fort, although Mr. Paine said it was “designed primarily to get people’s attention.”

As a state-chartered museum, however, the fort is subject to regulations of the New York State Board of Regents. A new regulation relates specifically to the sale of artwork and forbids museums and historic sites to use proceeds from such sales to cover operating expenses or to pay down debt. Rather, they can be used only to acquire new works or conserve existing artwork.

Mr. Paine makes the case that the historic structures that make up the fort are the “collection.” And work on the education center amounted to “conservation” of that collection since it entailed upgrading utilities and combing the grounds for additional artifacts. Archaeologists found, among other things, an eight-inch rosary dating to the 1750s inside the fort’s original ovens.

The education center, while new construction, restores the “original skyline” to that of the 1750s, as Mr. Westbrook likes to say, in that it is based on the floor plan of a warehouse for gunpowder that stood on the site.

But Cliff Siegfried, director of the New York State Museum and the State Department of Education’s assistant commissioner for museums, said that Mr. Paine’s line of reasoning was problematic. “There have been a number of buildings and sites that have tried to make that argument, and we’ve resisted that argument each time,” he said.

Still, he insisted that the Regents were committed to the fort’s survival. “Its importance to the economy of that region and the history of New York is obvious,” he said. “We’re going to work with them to make sure that it doesn’t fail. This is a hiccup in its history.”

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