By BARBARA O’KEEFE, President, Fort La Présentation Association
OGDENSBURG -- In 2000, the Fort La Présentation Association was a new, naive organization that envisioned a reconstructed fort by 2012.
We had acquired 19 acres, which we believed to be contamination free, adjacent to the original site of Fort de La Présentation for $100,000.
We could not foresee the obstacles or the successes we would encounter. We could not imagine the individuals and organizations we would meet or the education would we receive.
As an all-volunteer group, we engaged New York State and ExxonMobil in a cleanup of our property. We accomplished this in five years through the support, influence and financial assistance of our lawyer, Atlantic Testing Laboratories and their CEO Marijean Remington, former Congressman John McHugh, former State Senator James Wright and former Assemblyman Darrel Aubertine. We now own, debt-free, 22 acres cleaned of petroleum contamination.
Contrary to the rumors, we did not receive $8.2-million, $6-million or even the $2.25 million from the New York State Environmental Protection and Spill Compensation announced in a news release and press conference held by the Office of the State Comptroller in 2006. New York State now says the release was premature and there was no settlement.
Those funds would have undoubtedly moved the project forward. Nonetheless, we did receive about $80,000 from ExxonMobil for costs associated with the cleanup and placed the money in our endowment fund. We remain in the process of reaching a financial settlement.
However, New York State and ExxonMobil are the principals in litigation
We have learned what took place on our shores and have inspired research. We have befriended visitors from around the world, and we have reached young and old through our educational programs.
We are encouraging heritage tourism. The Fort Association is featured in publications, members serve on state committees, we are on the state and national registers of historic places, and are now a Preserve America Community.
We have partnered with Forsyth’s Rifles, Inc. and Fort Wellington to enhance our Founder’s Day Weekend and to support Ogdensburg’s Winter Battle.
This year. we have associated with two international trails – War of 1812 Peace Garden and Volkssport Trails – connected with Lighthouse Point. We also have support from the Canadian Friends of Fort La Présentation Association.
With community support, we have met goals of our educational mission. AT&T, Stewart’s Shops, McDonalds, New York Council for the Humanities, Founder’s Day sponsors, Heuvelton Central School and Ogdensburg School Districts, St. Lawrence–Lewis BOCES, our board members and advisors have contributed time, money and labor.
Our War of 1812 Heritage Talks bring together leading War of 1812 authorities. They have educated the public and encouraged scholarly collaborations. More than 900 local fourth and seventh grade students have participated in our Living History Day. S
eventh grade teachers say their students have retained what they experienced as fourth graders. Our hands-on learning kit available to schools includes Native and Colonial reproductions and curriculum reading resources. We sponsor lectures, workshops and two annual re-enactments.
The area around the Abbé Piquet monument is being developed. Assemblywoman Addie Russell provided funds for two of the five interpretive signs and landscaping. The Native Village signage is in production.
The fifth panel on the War of 1812 is being designed. Once all the panels are installed, we can design the plaza, which will include the Daughters of the American Revolution War of 1812 Peace Garden. We support the community by allowing the Ogdensburg Community Garden Group to use a portion of our land for their garden plots. Our cooperation took neither time nor money from our goal of rebuilding the fort.
This is not the first attempt to reconstruct Fort de La Présentation. If this was easy, then the fort would have been built by a community work party 60 years ago.
Through research conducted since, we have conceptual drawings based on original documents and plans, which look quite different from those in old newspaper articles. Among our challenges are completing architectural and engineering drawings, resolving flood plain issues, upgrading and burying utilities, relocating a road, and codes and regulations to follow.
When completed the project must be sustainable, which is why we have begun our endowment fund.
We are aware of the economic climate; we continue to search for funding and have plans to apply to New York State’s Consolidated Funding next year. We have a dedicated board that gives thousands of hours of time and expertise each year to make a difference in the community.
The 19 individuals are good stewards of the Association assets, but cannot build this project alone. This project is so much more than honoring our rich history. It’s about community pride, quality of life and economic development.
We will miss a golden opportunity for our community’s economic development if we do not invest in heritage tourism to earn our share of the $5-billion tourism contributes to the New York State economy.