Preservationists Insist Battlefields Sell Themselves

Matt Borders, left, talks to visitors about Civil War artillery at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md.
Matt Borders, left, talks to visitors about Civil War artillery at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 5, 2005

SHARPSBURG, Md. -- From the center of Antietam National Battlefield, a panorama of wheat fields and zigzagging rail fences stretches for miles to the green slopes of South Mountain and beyond.

But at the edges of this and other Civil War sites lies the perennial line between the forces for economic development and the desire to preserve every acre of history.

Now preservationists have adopted a new strategy, pointing to a recent study that shows that efforts to save battlefields might actually boost the local economy more than development nibbling at the edges.

"I've never heard someone say, 'Gee, I'm hungry -- why isn't there a hamburger restaurant right next to here?' " said Thomas Clemens, president of Save Historic Antietam Foundation. "People want to see, as much as possible, Civil War sites that look the way they did at the time it took place."

That seemingly paradoxical theory was greeted with skepticism by a group of investors considering one of the more controversial projects under discussion: to build a casino near Gettysburg, Pa.

"I guess that's the 'Don't build it, they'll come,' theory, which goes very counter to what most people think," said John Brabender, a spokesman for the investors. He said the investors group, Chance Enterprises, plans to release its own economic-impact study in the next few weeks.

"It's going to show that there will be a positive impact in the region," he said.

The debate over battlefield preservation comes as federal spending on such efforts is expected to increase: Congress has made "historic battlefields" eligible for money from the six-year, $286 billion transportation bill enacted in August. In 1992, Maryland used an implicit interpretation of the law to use federal funds for the purchase of farmland at Antietam Battlefield, said James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust. Since then, 11 states, including Virginia, have used federal transportation enhancement grants for battlefield preservation.

At times, the federal government has intervened directly to save historic sites: In 1988, President Ronald Reagan agreed to purchase land adjacent to Manassas National Battlefield Park rather than allow a shopping mall there.

Lighthizer cited a recent report by his organization that suggests that preservation makes good economic sense. By restoring the battlefields to their original look, the sites become more attractive to tourists. Their money is more valuable than most, because they demand few services in return. Putting new homes on the same land, on the other hand, would mean building more schools and hiring more police, Lighthizer said.

The preservation trust commissioned the two-year study of 13 battlefields, including Antietam, Gettysburg and three Virginia sites: Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania and New Market. Gettysburg draws the most visitors, with about 1.6 million a year. Fredericksburg drew 373,465; Antietam attracted 198,331.

The survey, released in May, found that Civil War tourists tend to be older, well-educated and affluent. At Gettysburg, they spent $121 million on restaurants, hotels and entertainment. Antietam tourists spent $10.8 million, while visitors to the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park spent $20.5 million. The study also found 2,653 jobs connected to the Gettysburg site. Fredericksburg supports 387 jobs, and Antietam has 309, the survey found.

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