By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
For the folks running the region’s historic sites, the timing of Minnesota’s state government shutdown could not be worse.
From Fort Ridgely near Fairfax to the W.W. Mayo House in Le Sueur to the Harkin Store outside of New Ulm to the Jeffers Petroglyphs not far from Comfrey, July is the heart of the tourism season. And because the sites belong to the state, even though they’re operated by local historical societies, they’re shut down like much of the rest of Minnesota’s government due to the budget impasse between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“Serving the public and interpreting history is what we want to do,” said Becky Pollack, director of the Mayo House. “So being shut down by politics is kind of disconcerting.”
Ben Leonard, executive director of the Nicollet County Historical Society, is under contract with the state Historical Society to operate the Harkin Store and the Fort Ridgely historic sites.
“We’re very frustrated that we can’t serve the public and we can’t offer the programs we were going to offer,” Leonard said. “... But we’re ready to reopen when the state reopens.”
In the seemingly unlikely event that happens soon, programs on the building of Fort Ridgely State Park and the history of Minnesota River steamboats could probably be rescheduled for later in the summer, he said. And two or three of the busy July weekends could still be salvaged.
If the shutdown drags on through August, the hit will be substantial — including the financial impact for the state and for local organizations. It’s estimated that losing the entire month of July would cost the state $650,000 in revenue from shuttered historic sites statewide, Leonard said.
“If we’re not earning that
revenue, the percentage of tax dollars in operating these sites is going to be higher,” he said. “And I don’t think anybody wants that.”
Money is being saved by laying off the part-time workers who would have been giving tours and doing other work — three at the Mayo House, including Pollack; three at the Harkin Store; five at Fort Ridgely...
Other expenses, though, continue even as revenue dries up, Pollack said. Insurance premiums are still owed, utilities bills still arrive and the interpretive center adjacent to the Mayo House is leased space, so the rent must still be paid.
In addition, construction and repair projects are on hold, Leonard said, leaving small contractors without jobs they’d planned for this summer. A gravel trail was set to be constructed this month at Fort Ridgely and a septic system was slated for replacement. At the Harkin Store, the porch and gutters were to be fixed.
But what’s really disheartening for Leonard and Pollack is seeing people who are interested in the region’s history turned away by locked doors and posters explaining the shutdown.
Pollack, checking on the Mayo House recently despite being off the payroll, saw a couple reading the poster and returning to their car, which had New Mexico plates.
“A lot of times, they have out-of-state plates,” she said.
The brown and white tourism signs on highways still direct travelers to the sites, and websites — left in limbo by laid off state workers — often don’t have warnings that the sites are closed.
So the only history lesson for many visitors is a lightly interpreted one about the time Minnesota’s governor and Legislature couldn’t reach agreement on how to keep the state running.