Civil War museum plan hits obstacles


HAGERSTOWN - The dream: An immense national Civil War museum will open in 2003, making this Western Maryland city an epicenter of tourism.

The reality in Annapolis: Seeking state funding for a $50 million development can be painstaking and dogged by setbacks.

The Antietam Creek Coalition - a consortium of 15 Civil War buffs, developers, architects, lawyers, bankers and historians from around the country - is hoping to break ground on the American Museum of the Civil War in downtown Hagerstown within two years. It would be an 80,000-square-foot facility that, the group says, would rival Gettysburg National Military Park and boost Maryland's stature as the place to visit when studying the conflict.

But obstacles remain, among them a refusal so far by state officials to pay $450,000 to keep the project moving. Gov. Parris N. Glendening left the requested money out of his budget this year, and the coalition says it needs the funding by the end of the summer to begin final designs and fund raising.

The group's newest strategy is to seek a grant from the state Department of Business and Economic Development, which is reviewing the coalition's plans.

"This is too important to the state of Maryland for tourism, too important for economic development," says Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II, one of the museum's biggest advocates. "You have Antietam Battlefield to the south and Gettysburg to the north. We're right in the middle. It's a perfect fit."

The group also faces an increasingly competitive market for Civil War tourists. Gettysburg National Military Park is planning a $40 million visitors center and museum. And a $38 million Civil War museum in Harrisburg, Pa., originally set to open this summer but delayed, is expected to open in November.

Planners, undaunted by talk of competition, say Maryland, a border state, is the ideal place to study both sides of the war without a biased perspective. They also say the story told by their museum would set itself apart.

"We consider Hagerstown the heart of Civil War country," says Dennis Frye, a member of the Antietam Creek Coalition and former chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. "And this is not going to be a battlefield museum. We want to look behind the battlefields to present the society that existed. Who were these people killing each other? What kind of America did they live in?"

In all, the project is to be funded with $28 million from private investors and donors, $15 million from the federal government, $8 million from the state and close to $4 million from Washington County and Hagerstown.

Michelle Byrnie, a spokeswoman for Glendening, says one reason the governor was not able to include money for the museum in this year's budget is that the coalition's request came too late.

"He thinks it's a worthy project and it makes a lot of sense to build it in Hagerstown," Byrnie says. "Any future funding is certainly under consideration."

The project would be the most significant development in the history of downtown Hagerstown, city officials say.

The proposed site for the museum is just off the city's main square, at the corner of South Potomac and West Antietam streets. Planners envision a four-story building that would include interactive exhibits and an experience, they say, as dramatic and powerful as that offered at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. They also hope to erect a "Wall of Honor" - on which descendants of fallen soldiers could pay $100 to have names engraved - and build a park to surround the exhibit building.

Mayor Bruchey and other supporters say it would replace about a half-block of apartment buildings and businesses - a bail bondsman, a tavern, a small barber shop, a music store and a fraternal club - in what they say is the most blighted section of the city.

But the project doesn't have universal support. This past week, it wasn't receiving the support of anyone at the Short Stop Tavern, a bar full of regulars along West Antietam Street that would be demolished if the museum is built. Mike Hart, a bartender of 19 years, says the museum has less support than planners believe.

"I don't think it's anyone except the dignitaries, the mayor, the council and everybody," he says. "It seems like they want to get rid of the 'riff-raff.' They make you feel like nothing."

Hagerstown is in the midst of a face lift, having undertaken about $10 million in downtown development in the past five years, according to city officials. The University of Maryland is developing a satellite campus downtown and the city is considering building a new stadium for its minor-league baseball team, the Suns.

A study commissioned by the museum planners estimates it would bring 330,000 visitors in its first year and about $11 million annually to the local economy in jobs, retail sales, hotel rooms and taxes. The proposed location is just off Interstate 81, about four miles from Interstate 70, 12 miles from Antietam National Battlefield Park and 30 miles from Gettysburg. About 250,000 people visit Antietam annually and 1.5 million come to Gettysburg.

"We want people to stay in Hagerstown and visit Gettysburg," says Frye, the coalition member.

Ed Able, president and CEO of the American Association of Museums, says there is no way to predict how many museums around Antietam and Gettysburg it would take to saturate the market. But he says tourists coming to an area with a certain interest often visit more than one museum, and he adds that interest in the Civil War seems to be growing.

State Del. Sue Hecht, a Democrat representing Washington and Frederick counties who has been helping the coalition lobby state agencies for money, says hopes for opening the museum in 2003 may be optimistic. The area, she says, is unlikely to receive public funding for the stadium, the new university satellite campus and the museum all at once.

Museum planners, adds Hecht, will have to prove they can come up with the $28 million in private funding before the state makes any large commitment.

"They have to see more than a vision on paper," Hecht says. "We're not ready to jump. But everyone says the concept of this is great."

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