Daily Press - September 16, 2013, By Robert Brauchle
HAMPTON - For more than 150 years, Fort Monroe's mission was simple and direct: protect Hampton Roads and guard the Chesapeake Bay from invasion.
State and federal officials overseeing the property are finding civilian rule comes with its own complexities.
Two years after the Army deactivated the historic post, the property's overseers are pushing a mission to win the hearts and minds of the public. Fort Monroe can become a tourist hot spot, residential waterfront community and a recreation destination - but only if planners encourage the proper growth.
"Fort Monroe is a very complicated puzzle," said John Lawson II, chairman of the Fort Monroe Authority Board of Trustees. "With more than 200 buildings and 565 acres of land, there are a lot of potential uses."
Two years have passed since the Sept. 15, 2011 Army deactivation ceremony at Fort Monroe, and 22 months have passed since the president created the National Park Service monument.
"It's a very exciting time, and it takes time to build a vision," Park Service Superintendent Kirsten Talken-Spaulding said. "So far, there's been close to two-years of visioning and talking about what is most important at Fort Monroe."
The series of public meetings held by the park service and Fort Monroe Authority will soon begin to bear fruit as a master plan that prioritizes projects and programs. The authority's Planning Advisory Group is scheduled to review a draft master plan on Sept. 26. The park service will come out with its own draft plans this winter.
Fort Monroe Authority Executive Director Glenn Oder points to the summer concert series, Independence Day festivities and youth summer camp as significant events and activities taking place, even as planners mold the property's long-term vision.
Close to 90 percent of the available residential units and more than 100,000 square feet of commercial space are being leased, creating about $2.5 million for the authority this year.
Oder said state and federal funding will soon wane, forcing the authority to find revenue to help pay the bills.
"How do we bridge that gap?" Oder asked. "There's no silver bullet and no single way to become sustainable."
Some groups are demanding that the authority make economic decisions without compromising the property's unique character.
Keeping a close eye on Fort Monroe is the Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park. The group has pushed for the a park-like vista to be created between the northern National Park Service monument and the stone fort in an area known as the Wherry Quarter.
The citizens group wants the national park monument to be extended through the Wherry Quarter so the fort and northern beach area are connected. The roughly 70-acre area separating the park service monument areas is now state owned.
Scott Butler, of the citizens group, said the group fears decisions to make the property economically independent - such as building homes in vacant areas - could devalue the property as a destination for visitors.
"The public has constantly wanted park land" in the Wherry Quarter, said Butler, who is also a member of the Fort Monroe Planning Advisory Group.
"If the Fort Monroe Authority creates a plan that only addresses the short-term economics, then I don't know how the property could ever recover," said Louis Guy, an active member of the Fort Monroe group and the Norfolk Historical Society.
"They have to plan for the next 100 years," he said.
Lawson - who was elected board of trustees chairman in July - said the board's foremost goals should be to adopt an acceptable master plan and continue negotiations with the Army to transfer the remaining portions of land into the state's hands.
The state accepted ownership of 312 of the fort's 565 acres in early June, well behind a schedule initially expected when the post was deactivated.
"Owning those 312 acres puts us in a very good place," Oder said.
The state authority can now plan events and make decisions with property on those 312 acres without having to consult with the Army.
Ownership also comes with its own heartburn. The state must maintain vacant buildings and grounds, address residents' concerns and fix unexpected problems.
Lawson said the authority needs to focus on projects that help reduce costs, even if the changes are out of the public's eye. Aging water and sewer pipes need to be cataloged and improved, water meters need to be installed and buildings must be maintained.
"We can't do it all at one time, but we have residents who still need to be taken care of," he said. "We need to rent the existing buildings and build new buildings that are complementary to the architectural style of what is out there. We want this to be a living, active community."
What to expect
Some of the most significant plans revealed for Fort Monroe likely won't take shape for at least a few more months, when Gov. Bob McDonnell is expected to approve the property's master plan.
A math and science school is planned for buildings in the inner moat; vacant office buildings could be converted to residential space; and a walking trail outlining the property are all expected to be part of the master plan being reviewed by the Fort Monroe Authority Planning Advisory Group on Sept. 26.
Oder said that document will outline a plan to preserve the property's character, tell visitors about the history that took place there and make its operation economically sustainable.
"There should no surprises with the direction the master plan is heading," he said. "We've held numerous public meetings, design charrettes and public comment periods."
The National Park Service will also ramp up its presence in the upcoming months when it completes its own set of guiding principles.
"We're talking about what makes the site nationally significant ... and we're creating a landscape so that people can come out here and enjoy themselves," Talken-Spaulding said.
Visitors will soon see National Park Service signs with the agency's signature arrowhead logo.
"We want to ensure that our footprint is one that is complementary in nature at Fort Monroe and not something that is a shoehorn," she said.
Decisions made at Fort Monroe will also reach into the abutting neighborhoods.
Laura Sandford sat on a bench along Mellen Street in front of the antique store she operates with her husband Jeff on a recent week day.
Lately, more cars and pedestrians are visiting downtown Phoebus, and that means more business for Sandford's store, Robert's Antiques and Collectibles.
"There's a wonderful sense of purpose that has been building here," she said. "This is what people have been talking about for the past five years. There's more energy down here, for sure."
Robert's Antiques is named after Laura's father. The business has existed for more than 40 years, although Laura and Jeff have operated it for about nine years.
Sandford said more people are coming in to her store both looking for furniture to buy for their homes on Fort Monroe, and to sell pieces that do not fit in the new space.
Down the street, Matt Wallace and his brother, Dustin, opened screen printing business The Prince Ink Co. in February 2012. The pair have since outfitted the space at 120 E. Mellen St. with antiques and memorabilia from Phoebus and Fort Monroe.
"When we were looking for space here, we had the pick of the litter - I think there were six buildings we could look at," Wallace said. "Now I think there might only be two vacant spaces available."
Wallace said he heads to Fort Monroe when he needs a breather from work and to the nearby restaurants on Mellen Street for business meetings.
"A lot of people just don't know it's open to the public," he said. "They need to let people know what's out there."
Fort Monroe master plan
What: The Fort Monroe Authority Planning Advisory Group will review the property's draft master plan
When: 1 p.m. Sept. 26
Where: Bay Breeze Conference Center, 490 Fenwick Road
Why: The advisory group is expected to review the draft, then either suggest changes or recommend the plan to the board of trustees.
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