The National Park Service, snared in controversy for the last two years after proposing an ambitious restoration and development project in Gettysburg National Military Park, will issue its "final plan" today, endorsing construction of a new visitor complex at the Civil War battlefield, officials said yesterday.
The plan, which relies on a federal-commercial venture to raise $39.3 million for the modernization project, has drawn substantial criticism from history buffs, who oppose large-scale development in the park, and local merchants, who fear that the visitor complex will siphon away tourist dollars.
But Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said in a written statement that "it is now time for the Park Service to move ahead with this plan."
Babbitt said the project would "help restore historical integrity to some of America's most hallowed ground."
"It moves the landscape and the battlefield much closer to the way things looked to the brave men who fought there in July 1863 in the battle that changed the course of the Civil War," Babbitt said.
Under the plan, the Park Service would tear down two outmoded buildings -- the existing visitor center and the center that houses a gigantic 1884 "cyclorama" painting of Pickett's Charge, the climactic moment in the Gettysburg battle.
Demolishing the buildings would allow for restoration of the spot known as Ziegler's Grove, which overlooked the fields where Union troops turned back Confederate soldiers.
The painting and a priceless collection of Civil War rifles, drums and other artifacts would move to a new visitor complex, which would be built on a site away from the primary battlegrounds. Park officials said storage facilities for the collection are inadequate, allowing rust and mildew to occur.
The new complex would be financed through bank loans and a nonprofit foundation set up by developer Robert Kinsley of York, Pa. The complex would be turned over to the government after the construction debt is retired through charitable donations and tourist dollars.
The Park Service decided to try such a venture after officials concluded Congress would not appropriate the funding.
Today's release of the plan brings to an end the public comment period required for significant policy changes by federal agencies and allows, after a 30-day waiting period, Interior officials to proceed with the project.
The Park Service said it sponsored 30 meetings and received more than 4,000 comments from across the nation on the proposed complex and other changes at the Gettysburg park.
To address criticism that the project would take money away from local merchants, the Park Service plan would scale down proposed food services. The original plan called for a "white-tablecloth" restaurant and a cafeteria, with total seating for 600. The latest plan would permit a 250-seat snack bar serving "light meals," officials said.
The original proposal called for a large-screen Imax movie theater and private shops, but the Park Service last year eliminated the shops and opted for a traditional movie theater.
In another change, the final plan would provide parking for visitors to the Soldiers' National Cemetery, located near the current visitor center.