Washington Crossing Historic Park quietly changing hands in September

 Reenactors make their way across the Delaware in very deep boats, making it appear that the rowers are sitting. (Photo courtesy of Kathleen Pasko)

Reenactors make their way across the Delaware in very deep boats, making it appear that the rowers are sitting. (Photo courtesy of Kathleen Pasko)

Buried deep in a bill that helps implement Pennsylvania’s new state budget, one section means a big change for Washington Crossing Historic Park.

In early September, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which has run the Bucks County park for the past 43 years, will relinquish control to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The reasons behind the change are murky, but state Rep. Scott Petri (R-Bucks County), who helped usher in the budget note, indicated that it’s not a financial issue.

“PHMC has done a rather deplorable job in the last 30 years of handling it,” said Petri, who himself is a PHMC commissioner.

“I do not think the site administrator is doing a good job at all, I’ve been very vocal about that,” he said. “This should have been their flagship, this is a very important site to Pennsylvania’s history.”

Petri said that for him the issue that broke the camel’s back concerned the lack of a flag hanging over the visitor center. When asked about it, the site administrator blamed it on lack of state funding.

“If you can’t get that right, how do you think you’re going to get a good visit and a good tour, or managing 500 acres, how do you think you’re going to get that right?”

For the new operator, money could be a problem. The new budget also included $500,000 allocated to DCNR to take over the park, but Gov. Tom Corbett line-item vetoed that amount.

The governor did not give a specific reason for the veto, but Rep. Petri believes it’s because the amount that DCNR actually needs to properly take over the park is more in the ballpark of $1.2 million.

When asked what this would mean for the agency, DCNR spokeswoman Chris Novak was reserved.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” said Novak. “We are working to figure out what the requirements are under the fiscal code and what has to happen next.”

The fiscal note calling for a change in park operators was actually introduced in last year’s state budget, but there was no set deadline. Now the transfer will take place 60 days from the budget’s signing, which occurred July 10.

Howard Pullman, a spokesman for PHMC, said the agency has been discussing plans for the transition for the past year.

“It wasn’t negotiations,” said Pullman. “It was determining the best use, the best path forward for the park and the people who use it, that’s been our discussion and continues to be with DCNR. This new action just ramps all that stuff up.”

Those conversations included PHMC’s future role at the park, the spokesman said.

“What that looks like, we don’t know at this point, I couldn’t tell you,” said Pullman.

Perhaps one of the groups most interested in the future of park operations is the nonprofit Friends of Washington Crossing, an independant organization that plays a major role in the park’s daily operations including tours and fundraising.

The friends group is also responsible for historical reenactments each year at the park, including George Washington’s famous Christmas Crossing. Friends executive director Joe Capone said the group was not sure why any of this came about, or what the group’s future role would be.

“I know that the Friends are here and willing to help in any way that we can,” said Capone. “If you’re sitting at the table with us and we’re working towards the same goal, we’ll work with you and support you in any way that we can.”

Capone said the Friends group had worked very well with both PHMC and DCNR in the past.

“Really, our bailiwick in this is let’s get this done,” said Capone. “When you get the egos out of the way and all the other mess, this is about having a sustainable park.”

The Friends of Washington Crossing took on more responsibility around the park in 2009, after state budget cuts left PHMC with four employees to run 500 acres of park.

“It isn’t enough, and we know that, but even before they were downsized they didn’t do a stellar job,” said Rep. Petri.

“It’s up DCNR management to figure out who the right partners are to make this the special place that it should be,” added Petri, whose wife serves on the Friends of Washington Crossing board of directors.

Petri anticipates that legislature will come up with the money for DCNR to properly take over the park through supplemental appropriations within the next 60 days.

“Politics aside, it’s about this park and it’s about this community,” said Capone. “We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing until someone says stop.”

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