Here's the ultimate trivia quiz stumper: What do $1 million worth of donated seeds, Gaithersburg, Mars and a stretch of old rail bed through Washington have in common?
They're all part of the nation's official millennial observance, which, yes, is still going on and seems to include a little bit of everything these days. Gaithersburg is one of 424 Millennium Communities across the land. The red planet is the focus of the Mars Millennium Project for children. The rail bed is among 50 Millennium Legacy Trails for hiker-bikers young and old.
And those seeds? If the plug-a-plant idea dubbed Millennium Green takes off, by summer they'll be sprouting in backyard and schoolyard gardens in every state.
Although many Americans probably figured that they were done with the M-word after the New Year's Eve ball drops and fireworks, the celebration continues until 2001. So does the White House Millennium Council, the small umbrella organization that essentially has been in business since 1997, creating or coordinating the national activities for what President Clinton has called "this historic time."
Asking what the effort has accomplished so far--or what the lasting impact will be--is no trivia question. The council's programs, often publicized through the prominence of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, have tried to span culture, history, science and community. More than $140 million in federal and private funds already have been pledged for the larger initiatives, though a total cost may never be calculated.
To some critics, the country's investment has bought nothing truly significant, nothing to match a project like England's Millennium Dome, for example. That immense structure, built for $1.2 billion on the banks of the Thames River in Greenwich, will showcase educational exhibits.
"The wealthiest, most powerful nation on Earth will leave little permanent behind to mark the moment," author James Reston Jr. fumed in an Outlook article in The Washington Post in October.
Others say the country's more modest and diffuse tack will prove itself in the end. The British may have heaved one huge boulder into the pond, compared with the numerous smaller pebbles the United States has tossed. Since New Year's Eve, the Millennium Dome has been beset by controversy, plummeting attendance and cash-flow problems.
"We just took a really different approach," said Ellen McCulloch Lovell, executive director of the Millennium Council. More grass-roots, she explained, and more democratic. "It may make [the celebration's sweep] a little more difficult to grasp, but it's a lot more American in spirit."
She points to projects such as Save America's Treasures. With two congressional appropriations and intensive private solicitations, it has raised $100 million to help rescue, at last count, 454 deteriorating or endangered historic sites, relics and documents, including the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in Colorado, the Thomas Edison Invention Factory in New Jersey and the Apollo Space Program Artifacts at the National Air and Space Museum.
"I'm really proud that in . . . 50 years, we'll look around and see all these treasures that have been saved," McCulloch Lovell said.
Nearly five dozen of them are in Maryland, the District and Virginia, including the Hanover Tavern north of Richmond. Its historical claim dates to when Patrick Henry's in-laws owned the property in the 1760s and he argued key legal cases in the courthouse across the street.
"This is kind of a validation," said Joseph Kyle of the Hanover Tavern Foundation, which in December received a $30,000 millennium grant to catalogue the building's age and the changes made in three centuries. "We're thrilled that we've been listed."
Indeed, at the local level, there's significant support for those pebbles and the ripples they've already made--regardless of whether money has flowed from them.
"It's speeding up the process," D.C. Parks and Recreation planning officer Ted Pochter said of the Millennium Legacy honorific bestowed on the seven-mile Metropolitan Branch Trail, which ultimately will connect Union Station with Silver Spring. The White House recognition included no direct funds but has helped prod negotiations on trail sections. There is no target date for completion, but "the expectations are high to build this," Pochter said.
Similar enthusiasm exists in Gaithersburg, which applied early to be an official Millennium Community. A citizens panel, assembled to suggest ideas that would earn the designation, came up with proposals such as a millennium garden and millennium museum. The museum will open Feb. 16 in Lake Forest Mall, with hundreds of items donated by local residents.
"Any time the White House endorses something, it's just kind of a feather in your cap," said city spokeswoman Suzanne Ross.
Other millennial ventures, involving a jumble of federal agencies, civic groups and foundations, have hit home on several fronts. More than 123,000 Mars Millennium Project kits were distributed or downloaded from the Internet last year to schoolchildren designing a livable Martian community circa 2030. Millennium Green aims to get 250 million trees and 1 million gardens planted across the country during 2000, and the America the Beautiful Fund is supplying the starter seeds.
Still, little of of the millennium commemoration has permeated the national consciousness, according to Todd Gitlin, a professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University. Even with Hillary Rodham Clinton as its most forceful advocate, the program as a whole didn't catch on with the media, he said, so there was "no way [for it] to break through the static."
Clinton's spokeswoman insists the first lady is no less committed to seeing the millennium programs through this year, despite her Senate campaign in New York. "This stuff is so tied in her mind to civil society," Lissa Muscatine said. "She will continue to participate and oversee some things and remain as involved as much as she can."
There will be more historic treasures named, and in June, 2,000 Community Millennium Trails will be announced. The White House also will host several more Millennium Evenings, which in the past have featured such prominent figures as historian Bernard Bailyn, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.
And, McCulloch-Lovell delights, "We still have people coming to us with ideas!"