The spirits of the hundreds attending this morning’s inaugural meeting of the federally appointed St. Augustine 450th Commemoration Commission were high; Historic City News Editor Michael Gold reported from the Flagler College Auditorium.
Presidential Cabinet member, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, was introduced to an attentive audience by Florida’s Secretary of State, Kurt Browning. St. Augustine City Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline reported that, at the reception preceding this morning’s meeting, Secretary Salazar set the mood with a quote that resonated with her, “Let’s take an honest look at our history.”
Sikes-Kline is a preservationist who often supports projects that she feels are authentic and can be critical of those that fall short; those guilty of peddling so called “revisionist history”.
Many major civic, tourism, cultural, artistic, and heritage interests were represented in the crowd of about 300 participants — more than participated in last week’s re-apportionment hearings held in the same venue.
Romanza CEO Albert Syeles told Historic City News as he looked at the array of participants, “This is great; it was more important that they see us than it was that we see them.”
Unlike some of the city’s “false starts” at planning and financing what the residents want for their 450th birthday, the federally appointed commission will be led by what Senator Bill Nelson calls a “star spangled commission”. Today’s meeting laid a strong foundation for the continued success of the City in making our community’s ideas transform into realities. In describing the missteps and what lies ahead, Salazar explained, “This commission, it has a lot of work ahead of it — but, it has a lot to build on.”
Salazar travels the country regularly in his responsibilities as Secretary of the Interior; he says that he has the best job in government — where his peers may travel to open new roads or bridges — he gets to travel to places like Yosemite, the Everglades, and St. Augustine. “You live in one of our creator’s most special places,” Salazar said.
One of the large challenges he hopes the commission will be able to address is education. “The history of this place may be well known to all of you here in St. Augustine, or well known to those of you who are history buffs, but it’s not a history that is very well known throughout the United States,” Salazar told the audience. “Eric Johnson told me last night that when he went to school, he was always being taught that Plymouth Rock and Jamestown were the first places that were settled in this country.”
Salazar brought a big laugh and applause when he went on to say, “As a young man he would tell his teacher that in fact that was not the case — there were places here in Florida that actually pre-dated Jamestown and Plymouth Rock by nearly half a century. So, by the time Jamestown and Plymouth Rock came along, we were already doing an urban renewal here in Florida, in St. Augustine.”
Salazar named Mayor Joe Boles; crediting him and Senator Bill Nelson with the kind of advocacy on the city’s behalf that it took to bring everyone here today. Salazar recognized National Monument Superintendent Gordon Wilson; remarking that he will be a tremendous asset to us and for David Vela and the National Park Service. “We will enjoy a wonderful several years ahead of us as we celebrate not only the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, but we also celebrate the quincentennial of the landing of Ponce de Leon.”
Salazar grew up in one of the poorest communities in the United States — about 265 miles south of Santa Fe, NM. He considers himself fortunate to have served his country as Attorney General of his state, and later, as a United States Senator, and now, as a member of the President’s cabinet — seventh in line to the President of the United States.
During comments by U.S. Congressman John Mica, he challenged the commission to follow-up closely on the Visitor Center project. “It’s hard to work on a three-hundred year old building, our oldest masonry constructed fort, and provide all of the facilities we expect today.”
Mica pointed out that Visitor Centers were built in 2008 for (AK)Denali National Park (432,309 annual visitors) the (GA)Martin Luther King National Historic Site (658,873 annual visitors) and the (CA)Lassen Volcanic National Park (377,361 annual visitors).
At (MD)Ft. McHenry National Monument and Historic Site (589,050 annual visitors), they are receiving a Visitor Center this year, however, each year, the Castillo de San Marcos and Ft. Matanzas National Monuments educates and entertains in excess of 1.4 million visitors.
The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument Preservation and Education Act was passed in the second session of the 108th Congress — January 2004. Earlier this year, the State of Florida and the City of St. Augustine officially executed land transfer of the site for the Visitor Center to the National Park Service.
In September, 2011, the National Park Service is scheduled to complete the archeological investigation and review of the site, and in 2012, complete the final planning and design.
Mica said that in early 2013, construction should begin and the Visitor Center should open to the public later the same year. Mica provided renderings of the new Visitor Center, planned removal of half of the existing parking, restoration of the Glacis to the south and removal of office and storage from inside the fort grounds.
In a brief press conference outside the meeting in front of City Hall, Salazar and Senator Bill Nelson, answered a few questions from reporters.
When asked what we should expect from these efforts, Salazar said, “Anytime you have major events like the Olympics or World Soccer like we had yesterday, it puts a spotlight, in a very positive way, on the community — I expect that is what will happen here.”
Asked at a time when money is such an issue, why the government should delegate money to a celebration, Salazar said, “It’s about job creation, we want to bring jobs back and help the economy.” He continued, “We are doing this all over the country as we realize that tourism is a major part of our economy.”
Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News staff photographer