Historic Fort Snelling Testimony

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MNHS Director and CEO's Testimony to the Minnesota State Legislature

Remarks of Minnesota Historical Society Director and CEO, Stephen Elliott to the Minnesota House and Senate Capital Investment Conference Committee June 14, 2016

Good afternoon, Mr. Chair. I am Steve Elliott, Director of the Minnesota Historical Society. Thank you, Chair Torkelson, Chair Stumpf, members of the Conference Committee and Commissioner Frans for allowing us a few minutes to provide you with some information on the Historic Fort Snelling Revitalization project.

We deeply appreciate your support for this project through the process this year, and for your important support last year, when you appropriated $500,000 for predesign in the 2015 Special Session capital budget bill. Predesign has gone well and we are poised and ready to proceed. The Fort Snelling project will provide an important educational facility, preserving through adaptive reuse, currently mothballed historic structures, making them accessible and meaningful to all Minnesotans. We respectfully request that this project be included in a Special Session Capital Budget bill.

To set some context, we are responsible for 31 historic sites, with 140 buildings all over the state. We are like a campus, but we are spread out all over the state. It is vital to keep on top of historic site asset preservation needs, which come in all sizes. This year’s request is larger than usual. Planning for this has been ten years in the making. It is not just a large request, but it is Minnesota’s seminal historic site. This is our highest priority this year. It is ready to go, with a significant amount of private dollars raised to supplement the state funding, with a special and compelling completion goal of the year 2020.

I know that you are familiar with the basics of the project, since both of your committees have visited the site. It will provide improved visitor services in a restored 1904 Cavalry Barracks and an 1880s Ordnance Building, while telling a wider variety of stories. The project also will remove the leaking and sometimes flooded underground visitor center. With improved facilities, we can better tell the wide range of stories of the diverse groups of people who have inhabited this site over thousands of years.

The Fort Snelling historic site is a state responsibility as a place listed in the Historic Sites Network, as defined in statute. It is also worth re-emphasizing that this project has not only statewide, but national significance:

  • The site contains the oldest structure in the state - the Round Tower; and Minnesota’s oldest residence, the Commandant’s House;
  • What happened at this site formed the basis of what has happened in our state for decades and centuries, as this area evolved from Dakota homeland to part of a Territory and then a State;
  • Fort Snelling was Minnesota’s first National Historic Landmark, the highest designation conferred by the US Department of the Interior;
  • And, most recently, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a national non-profit group, designated the Fort Snelling area as a “National Treasure.”

I am happy to go into greater detail on any aspect of the project but since we are limited on time, allow me to address two questions that have come up during the process of assembling a capital budget:

First, what is the urgency of doing this project now? There are two aspects of this:
We are working towards revitalizing this site for its bicentennial in 2020 and repositioning it as a national historic destination. This is a time when Minnesotans will be thinking about the Fort, and we need to capitalize on that interest and be ready to serve our citizens and relaunch the site. If we wait until May of 2018 to know that the funding is there, we will miss that opportunity.

And, as I have said to each of you, the Minnesota Historical Society is willing to work with our fellow citizens who are willing to put their own resources into this project. This is a departure from the established practice of the State of Minnesota being the sole source of capital funding for preserving State Historic Sites. But we’re committed to do the hard work required to gather these resources, to raise $12 million, to supplement the state’s funding, to keep this project on track. I have met with many potential donors, and the most frequently made comment is that they are willing to contribute and also want to see the state do its part for this site of singular historic significance for Minnesotans and Americans. We have rallied donors, including lead donors who are ready to go but we will lose some of these donors, by my count, about half of our goal, and the current momentum of our fundraising for this project, if state funding stalls. Then those contributions will go elsewhere. Let’s not let this opportunity pass to leverage state money with significant private funding.

Another question that has come up -- can this project be phased? It has been. This project is part of a larger master plan for the Historic Site for which we are responsible. Through the predesign process, we have identified the best way to move forward on serving our visitors, while preserving historic structures. We have already phased this project by emphasizing public service project elements, visitor services, in this first phase; and doing additional activities in future phases such as the cavalry barn and other site work. We wanted to be straightforward in our request this year - this is what we need. We have essentially already phased this project twice, reducing the cost to the state, both by the phased project scheduling and by raising significant non-state funding.

There are a couple of other aspects of this project worth mentioning: This project has garnered broad community support, statewide support, and has developed a significant constituency. You have in your folders letters from a wide variety of organizations, ranging from the Japanese American Citizens League to the Friends of Fort Snelling to the MSP Airport Foundation and many others. And, editorial boards from Fargo / Moorhead to Rochester to St. Cloud to the Twin Cities and the Legionnaire newspaper have weighed in with their strong support as well, some repeatedly. There are copies of those editorials in your folder as well.

In closing, we sincerely appreciate your interest in and support of this important project. Fort Snelling is a place that is well known and valued by Minnesotans, but it is time to tell the story of everyone who has passed through this important area, over a span of 10,000 years, whether Dakota, Dred and Harriet Scott, Japanese-American linguists at the World War II Military Intelligence Service Language School, or the many thousands of other veterans who have a strong personal connection to this place. Over 100,000 people passed through the Fort on their way to our first large-scale experience with global conflict in the Great War, World War I, and 300,000 on their way to World War II. Millions of Minnesotans and other Americans have a direct connection to Fort Snelling.

We hope that, with your help, we are able to move forward on preserving this state responsibility, taking advantage of the momentum of private fundraising, and keeping this National Historic Landmark project, where Minnesota began, on track for its bicentennial. Thank you for your attention today and for your support for this initiative.