Monday, January 25, 2010

News---Peterburg NPS Eyes 1854 Station As Visitors Center

South Side Depot Could Become Visitor Contact Station For NPS, F.M. Wiggins, January 24, 2010.

One of the city's most historic building's could become the property of the National Park Service if a plan to expand the park's boundaries is completed. This week the public will get a chance to comment on the proposed plans. South Side Depot, which was one of the most important buildings during the nine-month long siege of the city during the Civil War, could potentially become a visitor contact station for the National Park Service.

Originally built around 1854, the building served the Southside Railroad that connected City Point in Hopewell to Lynchburg. During the siege of the city, the Confederates used the station to receive supplies. Though the depot was a frequent target of Union shelling, it is only documented as having been struck twice. At a January 5 City Council meeting, Petersburg National Battlefield Park Superintendent Bob Kirby told officials that circumstances within the Park Service made it more feasible for the federal government to take possession of the building.

The 2005 General Management Plan for the Petersburg National Battlefield included the establishment of a visitor contact station in Old Towne Petersburg at the South Side Depot. It also called for the city to retain ownership of the building. Kirby said that the political climate within the National Park Service has changed dramatically. He described how several years ago, during the development of the General Management Plan, he was told that the train station was "just another old building" by National Park Service representatives at the regional office in Philadelphia. "Now without amending the General Management Plan we were able to proceed with an environmental assessment and will develop an idea of what the general public opinion is on how to proceed," Kirby said.

He said that the building is an emblematic institution of the importance of transportation - especially rail - during the Civil War. On Wednesday, the public will have a chance to speak up about the plans to include the 2.94 acre depot site in the boundaries of the Petersburg National Battlefield. Under the proposed plan, the city would transfer ownership of the building to the park to be used as a visitor contact station in the city.

If the park is able to expand the boundaries to include the building, Kirby said that repairs necessary to open it could cost up to $8 million. Maintenance and operations costs for the building would be included in the park's annual budget at no additional cost. But Bill Patton of the Petersburg Foundation - who has twice owned the station - said that the local non-profit has agreed to partner with the city and the National Park Service should the plan move forward.

"We would primarily be handling the money," Patton said. Patton is excited about the potential of reuse for the building. He said that he personally paid to have it restored for use in 1990. However, the August 1993 tornado that ripped through Petersburg caused more damage to the building than nine months of siege warfare. The east cargo terminal was leveled, the cupola on the roof of the central building was removed and roofing was nearly destroyed. Following the tornado, the building was sold in the late 1990s to a group that had promised to raise funds, restore the building and turn it into a museum.

Patton said that plan fell through and he had to take the group - The War Between The States, Inc. - to court. The lawsuit ended with a settlement that returned the building to the possession of the Patton family. Patton then eventually sold the building to the city for $640,000. Now he'll be working with the Petersburg Foundation to act as a fiscal agent and fundraising organization. "We'll be raising money, seeking federal and state grants to have the building restored," Patton said.

Patton said that he hopes that along with the money, the foundation will be able to hire contractors to preserve and restore the building - with the exception of the east cargo terminal. Federal restrictions prohibit the reconstruction of any building that has been destroyed. Patton said instead a roof may be constructed over the felled remains of the building, which may be restored to some extent for some other use - perhaps as an amphitheater or outdoor interpretive space.

The public will get two opportunities on Wednesday to comment on the proposal. National Park Service staff will host an two open house sessions where interested members of the community can ask questions, learn more about project and submit comments. The first session will be from 2 to 4 p.m. and the second session will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at the nearby Union Station at 103 River St.

Kirby said that the public comment period actually opened Jan. 13 and will continue through Feb. 19. The next step after the comment period, according to Kirby, could be completed by the end of April if everything goes well. "If there's no substantive objection to the use of the structure, we will have a Finding Of No Significant Impact or FONSI," Kirby said. If the FONSI is signed off by the regional director of the National Park Service, things will then take a legislative turn.

"We will then be at the stage of drafting a bill," Kirby said. "But the bill will need a sponsor." Kirby said that could come from the region's congressman - U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes - and that means that expanding the park boundary may not happen until the next legislative session. Kirby said that because this is a relatively "small project" with relatively little expected cost - approximately $600,000 to acquire the building and property - the project could move forward fairly quickly.

Text and Top Image Source: Petersburg Progress Index

Middle Image Source: Petersburg Data

Bottom Image Source: Flickr

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