There’s a battle brewing at Ste. Marie Among the Iroquois, and it’s not a reenactment.
Onondaga County Parks Commissioner Bill Lansley announced Sept. 1 that part of Ste. Marie would be converted into office space for the Onondaga County Soil and Water Conservation District (OCSWCD).
“It’ll definitely be by late winter or early spring. Provisions are being made right now for us to occupy the building,” said Mark Burger, executive director of the OCSWCD. “And we’re only occupying a small portion. The day-to-day activities of the facility as a whole will not be impacted.”
Still, Ste. Marie has been closed since November; no school tours meander its halls, and no displays extoll the virtues of the Iroquois way of life. County officials say the closing is necessary to prepare for the conversion; volunteers disagree and say that they’ve been dismissed in favor of a political agenda that has little to do with the historical, educational and recreational mission of the former French fort.
It doesn’t set a good precedent for the two agencies that will eventually share a home, if not a mission. Ste. Marie highlights the history of the former Jesuit mission on Onondaga Lake. OCSWCD, meanwhile, which will ultimately take over about half of the second floor of the visitors’ center, focuses on more environmental concerns.
“We do nonprofit pollution prevention,” Burger said. “For our agricultural customers, we do whole farm planning, including implementation of best management practices and infrastructure on farms. For our municipal customers, we provide stormwater plan reviews and construction site inspections. For the general public, we aid with soil testing, provide technical assistance in natural resource questions that they have.”
Burger said the two agencies are tied together by a shared concern for the lake.
“Onondaga Lake is one of the most polluted lakes in the country, or was one of the most polluted lakes in the country,” he said. “A lot of our work involves Onondaga Lake. With our presence right there, we’ll be acting as one of the stakeholders to get the lake moving in a cleaner and greener direction.”
Burger also said he hoped OCSWCD’s presence would draw attention to the historical site.
“We also have our tree and shrub sale coming up on April 19,” he said. “The pickup will be at the Salt Museum. The neat thing is, with our presence in the central part of the county, it will attract visitors to Ste. Marie and the Salt Museum. Everybody benefits.”
Consolidation: The way to go
Jim Rhinehart, former chair of the Onondaga County Legislature, headed up the drive to house the OCSWCD at Ste. Marie. He said he believed the site would prove a good fit for the department, on whose board he served before retiring from the legislature Dec. 31.
“They’ll be sharing with the Friends group,” Rhinehart said. “They don’t use the building in the winter, and we thought they could share the space there. They could get some remuneration from Soil and Water to offset their costs, so it would be a good fit.”
Rhinehart said the Ste. Marie visitors’ center building provided an ideal space for the OCSWCD, which was looking to move out of its current building in Lafayette to a more central location.
“We looked at combining them with the fish hatchery, but there just wasn’t enough room there,” he said. “We looked at the administrative offices at Highland Forest, but the ski patrol is using those, and it’s kind of out of the way, and it’s an old building, so that wasn’t looked at positively. The Ste. Marie facility is a good location. It’s centrally located. There’s plenty of parking there. The building is in good shape. And consolidation is the way we have to go. Our taxes in Onondaga County are already too high.”
“I believe it’s a good use of financial resources,” he said. “Consolidation is the way of future. By partnering together, it helps all agencies become stronger and more financially viable.”
In addition, the move will help to keep the struggling historical facility open; Rhinehart said Ste. Marie once again faced the chopping block in this year’s county budget talks.
“This was a much more positive way to go,” he said. “If we went the other way, we’re looking at the whole thing being closed.”
The 2012 total budget for Onondaga County as approved by the legislature is $1,199,251,817; the parks and recreation budget is $13,642,758. Of that, $37,544 is allocated toward historic facilities, which includes Ste. Marie as well as the Salt Museum at Onondaga Lake Park. That money funds maintenance of the facility, but no paid positions; all workers are volunteers. The only paid position at Ste. Marie was held by Allison Smith until she resigned in November, and her salary was paid by the volunteer group Friends of Historic Onondaga Lake (FoHOL), which helps maintain the facility. Volunteers put in a total of 6,500 volunteer hours, according to the county’s budget documents, in both 2010 and 2011. Total attendance in 2010 was 21,462; final numbers for 2011 were not available. Meanwhile, as a point of comparison, 2010 attendance at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo was 343,645, and at Highland Forest, it was 61,956. At Onondaga Lake Park, park attendance in 2010 was 1,380,003.
“This way, we have an opportunity to do some programming, have some space,” Rhinehart said. “I think the idea here is to be able to put the Friends group on more solid footing. I’d rather that than close it and walk away.”
Despite those words, several volunteers feel that they have been forced to walk away by the manner in which the county has pushed the conversion through. Jon Anderson has dedicated much of his life to preserving the history of the lake and to sharing that history with others. Anderson, who works for the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office in the Professional Standards Unit, is a former , former site manager, former president of the Friends of Historic Onondaga Lake and former chair of the volunteer operations committee at Ste. Marie. He started volunteering at the old French fort in 1984.
“I guess, based upon the personal-political agenda of persons in positions of politics, that the Soil and Water conversion project was perhaps inevitable,” he said. “But the way it was carried out on the part of the county, in my opinion, was rude, vain and absent-minded of the public towards the stewardship of our history and heritages attached to it.”
Anderson said once the decision was made that the facility would be shared, Ste. Marie’s original mission was marginalized, as were her volunteers, in favor of accommodating the OCSWCD. In objection to the county’s actions, Anderson resigned as president and board member of FoHOL on Sept. 15. He remained as operations committee chair until Nov. 20, when he grew fed up with FoHOL’s collusion with the county’s efforts as well as the failure of both to respect the mission of Ste. Marie and the needs of the volunteers. He then left that position, as well.
“The biggest problem that I see is the posturing and the approach and how it’s being done,” Anderson said. “That’s led to my resignation as president of FoHOL and as chairperson of the operations committee. It was amicable — both resignations. I realize that the current board was apathetic towards the volunteer position, and I felt that they were not meeting the mission statement, so I resigned in September. But I told them I would stay on board to support the volunteer effort. I was asked years ago to get involved because of my history with the site and with the parks department. So I stayed on board to meet the commitments that they had in terms of the public programming. Also, I wanted to assist the parks commissioner in terms of making an informed decision on the matters regarding the conversion project. I’ve been very disappointed in the approach that he is taking. It’s been detrimental to the volunteer program. It’s basically nonexistent at this point. It’s indefinitely suspended. Because of that reason, I resigned as the chairperson because the position really is obsolete.”
The announcement about OCSWCD moving into the space was made Sept. 1 with the intent for the conversion to be completed by the end of the year. Though minimal construction was necessary — by Lansley’s own words, “paint and carpet and moving one wall and cleaning the office and stuff like that” — all school tours, except those previously scheduled, were suspended with no explanation. A new Native American program scheduled to take place late in the fall was pulled.
“[Lansley] canceled any unscheduled programming, any developments of any programming, until further notice, because of construction,” Anderson said. “But, again, there was no definite, scheduled construction, no understanding of how it was going to interfere with things, so he basically was shutting us down.”
Neither Rhinehart nor Lansley were even aware that Ste. Marie was open during the winter months. In fact, the officials seemed to have little idea of what went on at the site.
“I’m not familiar with those programs,” Rhinehart said when asked about Christmas at Ste. Marie and Winterfest, which has taken place in late January and February in past years at the mission.
“Typically this time of year, it wouldn’t be open anyway because of the time of year,” Lansley said. “It’s primarily a spring through fall thing.”
Not so, said Anderson. There is usually limited programming at the site in the winter.
“[We had] a one-day Winter Festival that was held either in January or February, depending on when the Native groups were available,” Anderson said. “This winter program featured Native foods, arts, snow-snake sport, and dog sledding, and a winter experience at the mission site. This was one of the programs that highlighted focus upon Native American activities.”
In addition, the site hosted Christmas Around the World every year, which highlighted holiday traditions worldwide. Typically, school groups would perform while the display was up. This year, because the site was shut down, Christmas Around the World was not offered.
Anderson said Lansley has been trying to keep Ste. Marie closed during the winter months since his tenure as parks commissioner began.
“Since he took office, Mr. Lansley has pressed to shut down the Ste. Marie site during the winter months,” he said. “His reasoning was to save and in utility and plowing services. In an effort to accommodate this interest the site operations initially restricted winter activities. Last winter the commissioner directed the shutdown of the site during the entire winter — no exceptions — to include individual public events. Anyway, in truth, any winter shut down of the site was at the parks commissioner’s direction. It would be misleading for them to suggest that this was a past practice course of business. Prior to Mr. Lansley’s term, the site remained open, at least the visitor center, throughout the winter season.”
Anderson said it’s an example of the attitude public officials have towards the historic site and the lack of concern for is mission and its volunteers.
“The sad approach is that they took an immediate political agenda and prioritized it over the educational, historical and recreational mission of the site,” he said. “The fact that the volunteers have been great stewards of the site since they’ve been asked to take over the site in 2004 — they were so marginalized because of the approach the county has taken that it’s taken away their sense of purpose and their value…. It’s disappointing.”
The lake’s other friends
At this point, Anderson and the other volunteers can no longer access the site; after the last event at Ste. Marie, a wedding on Nov. 20 – the same day Anderson resigned as operations chair – Lansley changed the locks at the facility.
“That weekend, in order to protect the exhibits, because we had known that there was an intended plan to do construction — we had no control over security, and you can’t just leave the place wide open with all of those exhibits — the volunteers had packed the exhibits away and protected the archive room,” Anderson said. “The next day, the parks commissioner changed the locks on the building. There had been no communication about how and why that was going to take place. That’s what concerns me again about posturing.”
Lansley said he did change the locks, but a key was given to Joe Ostuni, new president of FoHOL.
“Since they’re the ones that are doing the volunteer work, we left it to the discretion of him what volunteers are going to come and go, because they had their displays and things packed up,” Lansley said. “It’s up to his discretion who goes in.”
Anderson said that he had resigned from FoHOL because they failed to act on behalf of the volunteers and the historical mission of the site despite the fact that the county’s interests conflicted with their own.
“The majority of the board members currently serving on the board took an apathetic view and said, ‘We’re going to cooperate with the county 100 percent,’” he said. “They were meeting with the county and suggesting how we can restructure the downstairs meeting space. They’re not involved nor have they been involved with operations here since they began. The one who stepped up to help the county with that didn’t even know half of what we had here.”
Ostuni said he understood Anderson’s concerns, as well as his resignation and that of Allison Smith, professional coordinator at Ste. Marie, on Nov. 20.
“That was their choice, and I understand their passion,” Ostuni said. “Now we’re trying to get ourselves organized. County parks really didn’t have a lot of choice, and having Soil and Water there could really help us. For instance, there will be someone there at the site throughout the week.”
Though it’s dark right now, Ste. Marie could open again to tourists and school groups sometime during this academic year. “The schedule may be different,” Ostuni said, “but we’ll have the same kinds of programs.”
Ostuni said FoHOL is working closely with Lansley, Parks Superintendent Bob Ellis and Administrative Director Nathaniel Stevens to determine the site’s future.
“We’ve got good folks helping us through all this,” Ostuni said, “and we’re working together to formulate a good program moving forward.”
Violation of state rules?
In the meantime, Anderson has raised another concern: is the conversion even legal?
In 1991, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation helped secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to facilitate construction of the site’s Visitors’ Center, Anderson said. One of those grants was from the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, administered through the National Park Service.
On Oct. 28, the New York State Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation Department alerted Onondaga County that its plan to lease Ste. Marie’s second floor would have to be reviewed and approved by the National Park Service.
In her letter to County Executive Joanie Mahoney, NYS Parks Chief of Grants Melinda Scott said the leasing arrangement with the County Soil and Water Conservation District “could constitute a conversion under the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Act.”
Scott attached copies of eight pages from the Land and Water Conservation Fund State Assistance Program manual which stipulates “local sponsors must consult early with the state LWCF manager when a conversion is under consideration.”
Anderson said the county’s “immediacy” constituted a violation of the state’s policy, putting the county at risk of having to pay back some $335,000 in grant money.
“The site was built with a federal grant from the National Endowment of Humanities,” he said. “It doesn’t deny that a site can be converted — they call it alienation — but there’s a process, and they’re clearly bypassing that process.”
Lansley denied that any money would have to be paid back to the state.
“We’re in communication with the state, and we don’t see any indication that they’re going to ask for that,” he said.
Regardless, it’s certainly not the end for Ste. Marie. The mission will reopen, in some form, in the spring; in the meantime, the Liverpool Public Library, OASIS and the Onondaga Historical Association will put on some of the programming that would normally take place on-site during the winter months.
Still, Anderson lamented leaving the place that had so long been his home. He said his resignation from FoHOL gave him an understanding of what the Jesuits must have gone through more than three centuries ago.
“I have an inkling of what it was for those men of faith to have been forced to abandon their mission upon the shore of Onondaga Lake in 1658,” he said.
Despite Anderson’s bleak outlook, Rhinehart is hopeful for the future of the partnership.
“We’re moving forward to have those folks work together,” he said. “These are good, intelligent people. They’ll find a way to work it out.”
Russ Tarby contributed to this story.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.