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Volunteers fill gaps at parks hit by budget cuts

With state budget cuts devastating the staffs at Philadelphia-area historic parks, volunteer groups are scrambling to support traditional holiday activities at the facilities.

With state budget cuts devastating the staffs at Philadelphia-area historic parks, volunteer groups are scrambling to support traditional holiday activities at the facilities.

The Bucks County Conference and Visitors Bureau will help finance the reenactment of George Washington's Dec. 25, 1776, crossing of the Delaware River - an event that the state handled for years.

"It would have been the first time in 53 years that this would not occur," said Bill Haas of the Bucks County bureau, which is working with the Friends of Washington Crossing State Park. "It never crossed our minds that this would not happen."

On Nov. 20, the Washington Crossing park closed most of its outbuildings and stopped its tours. Similar cuts hit Graeme Park and Hope Lodge in Montgomery County, and the Daniel Boone Homestead, west of Pottstown.

Volunteers at the Brandywine Battlefield Historic Site near Chadds Ford have kept most of the facilities open, though at reduced hours.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which oversees the parks, lost a third of its staff in the latest round of state budget cuts.

While the state will continue to provide some maintenance at the historic facilities, any activities or programming will have to be covered by volunteer groups.

At a news conference Tuesday, Gov. Rendell said volunteers and local fund-raisers will have to "step up" to fill the void left by the state budget reductions.

Rendell said that while he would like to restore the funding before he leaves office in 2011, he was doubtful that it could be done given the state's slow economic recovery.

"They should be prepared for a multiyear challenge," Rendell said of the volunteer groups.

No other state agency lost a larger percentage of its workers than the Historical and Museum Commission - which was hit with 85 of the 271 state layoffs.

Volunteers face serious obstacles as they try to keep parks open.

Linda Kaat, president of the nonprofit Brandywine Battlefield Park Association, said her organization had more advance notice of the cuts than other groups and was able to arrange sufficient backup staffing.

Today, the group will hold its Patriots Day event, with battlefield reenactments, cannon firings and musket drills - the last special activity of the year at the Delaware County site.

Kaat said her group leases the battlefield site from the historical commission, and has hired one former state employee as its educational director.

The state pays for one maintenance worker, down from its previous staff of 11.

"We take it a day at a time," Kaat said. "It hasn't been the best of experiences, but the important thing is that the battle site is open."

At the Daniel Boone Homestead, in Berks County, only the administrator and two groundskeepers were still on the job.

"They might let us open, and they might not," one of the maintenance workers said.

But the Friends of Daniel Boone Homestead plans to put on the Dec. 6 holiday program as planned.

Graeme Park, in Horsham, is open only on Sundays, but the Friends of Graeme Park said it hopes to return soon to a three-day-a-week schedule.

"We have a strong friends group that is willing to take on the added responsibility," said Beth MacCausland, president of the nonprofit group. "All of our programs will continue."

And at Hope Lodge, in Fort Washington, a sign on the door of the site's 18th-century Georgian mansion says that the facility is closed and that any information must come from the state historical commission.

John Gumbrecht, president of the Friends of Hope Lodge, said his organization plans to open the mansion for holiday tours on Dec. 12 and 13. He said his group was given only a one-day notice before Hope Lodge was closed on Nov. 20. He said there is no state staff at the site.

Brandywine's Kaat said that she has been in contact with volunteer groups trying to keep open the other parks in the region, and that they face a difficult job.

"It's just dismal," Kaat said. "They're in dismay at the news."