After thoroughly studying the virtue of building a controversial museum complex on private land inside Valley Forge national park, an independent consultant has reached a clear conclusion:
Don't do it.
The sound, economically sensible move, the consultant's study says, is to build the proposed $375 million American Revolution Center next to the park visitor's center - the original proposed site and a place museum leaders swear they won't reconsider.
The study says that building the envisioned three-story museum, four-story conference center and trailhead structure as a separate, distinct entity is certain to "create confusion" among visitors as to how the American Revolution Center is connected to the national park and where they should go first.
The evaluation was conducted by ConsultEcon Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., travel-and-business consultant, at the behest of the Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau, whose members have a huge financial stake in whether the museum complex is built. The bureau has not released the study publicly; The Inquirer obtained a copy from other sources.
The ConsultEcon report presents itself as an independent voice in a dispute that has turned fiercely partisan. ARC is determined to build on 78 acres of private land it owns inside the park, while National Park Service officials and their allies insist that construction would desecrate a national treasure.
This month, the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group, joined several Valley Forge neighbors in filing federal and local lawsuits to try to stop the project.
ConsultEcon lays out a series of difficulties that it says visitors would be sure to experience if ARC is built on what is commonly called the Pawlings Road site. But, it says those problems would be mitigated or reversed by placing ARC beside the visitor's center:
The overall experience of ARC visitors would be significantly enhanced because they could also easily visit the national park.
Attendance at ARC would be higher.
The positive economic impact on the surrounding area would be greater.
Efforts to contact Bruce Cole, the incoming CEO of ARC, were unsuccessful yesterday as he was traveling. Cole, currently head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was named as ARC's new leader last month when the board of directors dismissed longtime CEO Tom Daly. Cole formally starts work next month.
Cole has said that everything about the project is up for review - except the decision to build on the north side of the Schuylkill. That view is supported by H. F. "Gerry" Lenfest, the Philadelphia philanthropist who leads the ARC board.
Yesterday, Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau President Paul Decker said he could not discuss the information contained in the ConsultEcon study. The report has been distributed to key decision-makers, who have been asked to provide feedback, he said.
Decker said one purpose of commissioning the study was to gain an outside, professional opinion about how the location of the revolution center might affect the experience of visitors.
The visitors bureau has strongly supported the construction of the museum complex as best for the nation, the region and Valley Forge. But it has never taken a position on the issue of exactly where ARC should be built.
"We did this [study] so we would be able to tell our county commissioners, the project people, etc., that third-party research, from an unbiased outfit that has strong professional credentials - they came down here and they looked at it," Decker said.
What they concluded is that the decision about where to build is not a close call. The report cites problem after problem with locating ARC on the Pawlings Road site as opposed to the historic core of the national park:
People will be confused about how to plan, where to go and how ARC is tied to the national park. Separate, competing signs wouldn't help.
Access to the Pawlings Road site is "not fully established," meaning, in layman's terms, that it requires traveling local, traffic-clogged secondary roads. "Accessibility to the national park is far superior," the study says.
Visitors will arrive with different levels of historical knowledge and interest. Having two sites forces them to decide where and how to spend their time - and diminishes the time they can spend at either place.
Building ARC across the river "would create a dynamic of two smaller attractions at different sites effectively competing against each other," the study says.
On the other hand, the report says, building ARC near the visitor's center, as part of a partnership, would produce multiple benefits. Those include the compilation of a single, extensive collection of artifacts; an integrated visitor experience; easier entrance and exit to the area; and more visitor access to nearby restaurants, stores and hotels.
When first proposed nearly a decade ago, the museum was to stand near the visitor's center as part of a public-private alliance. But the marriage between the Park Service and ARC fell apart amid disputes over management and control, and ARC moved forward on its own. Its property is virtually surrounded by park land.