City officials, residents scramble to save Fort Ontario

Fort Ontario may be closing following a budget cut made by Gov. David Paterson late last week, which was designed to help close an $8.2 billion deficit.

The fort is one of 79 state parks and historic sites affected by the budget cut. The plan will completely close 41 parks and 14 historic sites, and reduce services at 23 parks and one historic site, according to Paterson’s press release.

"In an environment when we have to cut funding to schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and social services, no area of State spending, including parks and historic sites, could be exempt from reductions," Paterson said in the release.

Dan Keefe, spokesman for New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said that the decision of which parks and historic sites to shut down came from looking at attendance, operating cost, geographic distribution, availability of other services nearby and revenue.

"The budget was reduced by 16 percent," Keefe said. "This is our plan to deal with that."

Fort Ontario was put on the closing list based on the budget and criteria.
"It’s really disappointing that the state has decided to put [Fort Ontario] on the chopping block," said Justin White, Oswego County historian. "We’re really quite shocked seeing as it’s such a significant historic property."

Other members of the community are equally shocked by Paterson’s proposal. County legislature has passed a resolution to try and save Fort Ontario, and are "doing what they can to mitigate this," White said.
"Hopefully we can come up with a plan," White added. "An alternative to completely closing it. We are seeing a big reaction to it right now, which really shows the importance of [the fort]."

A number of social networking groups have cropped up, including groups on Facebook that advocate for keeping the fort open. Beth Dice Hilton, executive director of the Greater Oswego-Fulton Chamber of Commerce, is involved in several such Facebook groups.

"I think where it’s going to help is as a very quick and easy means of information. It’s helped a lot with awareness too," Hilton said.

Hilton added that the groups can also be of assistance with communication and getting people to read an online petition that will be released soon to try to save the fort.

"We will be able to link it on the site," she said.

Hilton hopes the fort can be saved due to its importantance to Oswego. Shutting down the fort, she said, "is really a tragedy on so many levels."
Bill McCarthy, a volunteer at Fort Ontario, expresssed his disappointement that the state is closing the site.

"I think somebody should look at the complete history of it" before deciding to close it down, he said, citing that the hospital on the fort was used to help fight against the Spanish flu in the early 1900s, and that 1,000 European refugees were housed at there after World War II.

The fort continues to bring money to Oswego today, with ghost tours of the site and the Safe Haven museum. The Art Association has a building on the fort’s land as well, and Little League Association practices on the grounds.

"It’s been open to the public as a historic site for well over 40 years, so it’s been a primary attraction here in Oswego County," White said.

Without the fort, Oswego would lose a major tourist attraction, and would then lose money. The fort attracts tourists, who help the town financially by staying in Oswego hotels and eating in the local restaurants.

"It’s a ripple effect," White said. "It doesn’t just stay in an isolated bubble."

Fort Ontario is not just important financially to Oswego, but also culturally.

"Historic sites are a good opportunity to see different communities and see what each one has to offer, and now if they’re going to be closed down, there’s nowhere to go," White said. The site acts not only as a tourism tool, but also as an educational tool, he added.

"A good clear show of public support will hopefully make a big difference in the end," Hilton said. "The community won’t let it go down without a fight."