Gettysbury park
The Gettysburg park incorporates nearly 6,000 acres and more than 1,400 monuments, markers, and memorials. In this field, Confederate General George Pickett lost 3,000 men charging Union lines on July 3, 1863. Little Round Top is in the background at center.

In 1863, in the midst of an agonizing Civil War, Americans paid a monstrous price at the battlefield in Gettysburg: An estimated 50,000 men on both sides lost their lives. Today, the costs of that battle have shifted from the death of our young men to the expense of honoring their memory—millions of tax dollars are funneled to Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania to show off the battlefield to the almost two million tourists who come there each year. John Latschar, the Park Superintendent and a private group have worked out a deal to privatize some of the park services, reduce the burden on taxpayers, and possibly improve the service and the exhibits as well. This plan, if successful, can serve as a model for privatizing services in other national parks. Burton Folsom, Jr., is a Senior Fellow in Economic Education with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and author of Empire Builders: How Michigan Entrepreneurs Helped Make America Great.

A proposal that would bring private business into Gettysburg National Military Park has sparked a battle. While National Park Service officials claim the venture will ensure sufficient services for park visitors in an era when government funding can no longer do so, others argue that private enterprise should be kept out.

Plans to privatize some of the park's facilities took a big step forward in November 1997, when Park Service officials tentatively selected a group assembled by Kinsley Equities of York, Pennsylvania, owned by Robert Kinsley, to begin negotiations for construction of a $43-million visitor center complex.

According to Kinsley's proposal, which was chosen from six that were submitted, Kinsley would create a nonprofit corporation to obtain the necessary funds for the project and hire contractors to design, construct, and operate the facility. Kinsley's own construction company would be guaranteed the contract to build the center, said Katie Lawhon, park spokesman. After the debt is paid off, ownership of the center would be transferred to the park service.

The Kinsley plan calls for a new building to house the park's visitor center, museum, cyclorama, artifacts, and archives, while setting aside an area for a bookstore, movie theater, gift shop, and food services. The theater, food services, and most of the shops would be operated by private companies for profit. The Park Service, which would retain total authority over the activities in the complex, would have a lease agreement with each business, an agreement that would end when the Park Service took over. At that point, Lawhon said, the Park Service would evaluate the operation and determine which businesses, if any, would continue.

According to the proposal, each business would keep its profits and pay rent to the Park Service, Lawhon said. The Park Service in turn would use those funds for park upkeep and to pay off the commercial loan.

The center would be built on private land at Baltimore and Hunt Avenues. No fighting occurred on the proposed site which was behind the Union battle line and was used as an artillery park. There was fighting, however, on the sites of the current visitor and cyclorama centers. The two buildings and their parking lots sit on part of Zeigler's Grove, a landmark of Pickett's Charge. The Union's battle line on Cemetery Ridge extended over that point, and troops clashed there on July 2 and 3, 1863, the final two days of the three-day battle.

The Park Service has considered a partnership with private business for the Gettysburg park since 1995, when its intention to build a new museum was first announced. Of course, construction requires funds, and according to Park Superintendent John Latschar, though the Park Service received $125 million for maintenance and construction in the 1998 federal budget, none of it was allocated for Gettysburg, which drew some 1.7 million visitors in 1997. "Given the obvious fact that there's a lack of government funding, we have found an appropriate way to solve the problem," Latschar said. "If we can do it tastefully and appropriately, we will have established a precedent that can be followed to solve problems at other national parks."

This article was adapted from Civil War Times Illustrated magazine, copyright 1998 by Cowles History Group, Inc., d/b/a PRIMEDIA Enthusiast Publications, 741 Miller Drive, SE, Suite D-2, Leesburg, VA 20175. Subscription (800) 829-3340. Outside the U.S. (904) 446-6914.