By Paul Decker
The American Revolution Center's decision to move to Philadelphia extends a nine-year record of switching rather than fighting. Instead of working to resolve issues with its partners and local officials, the proposed museum has moved twice from the place where it was originally conceived, Valley Forge.
The Valley Forge Historical Society gave birth to the idea of a museum celebrating the American Revolution. It did all the heavy lifting that brought about the landmark federal legislation allowing it to be built within Valley Forge National Historical Park, in the first partnership of its kind with the National Park Service.
But when control of the project was relinquished to the newly formed National Center for the American Revolution, the organization's leadership made it clear that it had no interest in partnering with the National Park Service or anyone else. It bickered incessantly with the service and did end runs around the partnership agreement, at one point embarrassing the Native American Oneida Nation. This is the bitter root of the problems between the organization and the park service, which were allowed to fester until as late as last fall.
After six years or so, the center walked away from the park service partnership and, later, proposed relocating across the Schuylkill to a difficult-to-access site within the park's historical footprint, with no solid evidence that it could succeed there.
Having done so, the organization promised anyone and everyone whatever they wanted to hear to achieve the approval of Lower Providence Township's zoning committee and supervisors. Now, those promises have produced nothing more than a huge township legal bill.
If all the parties involved think it's wise to move every major regional attraction to Philadelphia because of a perceived critical mass of visitors, I beg to disagree. The strength of this region as a destination is that it's so rich in diverse attractions; visitors can't travel more than a few miles in any direction without tripping over one of them.
Among them are the James Michener Art Museum in Bucks County, the Wharton Esherick Studio in Chester County, and the Barnes Foundation in Montgomery County - well, at least for a little while more before it, too, is moved to Philadelphia.
How much additional economic impact will be created by placing another museum in the heart of "America's Most Historic Square Mile," where visitors will now likely choose between the relatively high admission price of the National Constitution Center and the American Revolution Center?
In Valley Forge, the museum would have encouraged visitors to extend stays an extra night (in Philly or the suburbs) to see a meaningful new attraction. The big winners would have been local businesses, regional hoteliers, and commonwealth sales-tax coffers.
Now, the center's location - "all in a row" with Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the National Constitution Center - will serve only to perpetuate Philadelphia's long-suffered, albeit unfair, reputation as a rush-through-it, short-stay destination for many visitors and tour operators.
This project belongs in Valley Forge National Historical Park proper, where its founders originally intended it to be. There, it could begin to see a return on the $8 million, including $2.5 million from Montgomery County, that backer H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest said has already been spent for architectural design and other purposes. It would be a benefit to all who come to learn of the magnificent, world-altering struggle and victory it promises to showcase; for the National Park Service; and for Montgomery County and regional businesses.