GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- Most of America's national park and recreation sites, including big names like California's Yosemite, Wyoming's Yellowstone and Arizona's Grand Canyon, are owned, operated and maintained by the National Park Service using federal funds.
But an unusual public-private partnership provides considerable private funding at the Gettysburg National Military Park, site of the historic three-day battle in early July 1863 that proved to be the turning point of the Civil War and preserved the nation.
The $103 million Gettysburg National Visitors Center and Museum, which opened in April 2008 and has drawn more than 6 million visitors to date, is owned and operated by a nonprofit group called the Gettysburg Foundation.
Even though the center was financed by a combination of federal, state, private and bond funding, its operation relies solely on the private revenues it generates.
The foundation, which has 20,000 members nationwide, has roots dating back more than 20 years. Its chairman is a York County construction firm owner, Robert Kinsley.
"There are over 400 units in the National Park system -- parks, recreation areas, historic sites, seashores and lakeshores," said Gettysburg park superintendent Bob Kirby. "Our model is different than the others. We're unusual, but it's working extremely well."
The foundation funds all maintenance and utility costs at the new visitors center and generates money to upgrade battlefield buildings and the dozens of military monuments that honor soldiers from different states. The funds also help operate a Civil War cannon shop and repair 150-year-old fences made of wood and stone.
The foundation spent $120,000 to clean and repair a huge circular painting called the Cyclorama, which was painted in 1884 and depicts the famous "charge'' by Southern soldiers under Gen. George Pickett on July 3, 1863, which Union forces ultimately repulsed.
The funds generated by the visitors center -- more than $800,000 already in 2013 -- allow the National Park Service to spend federal funds to preserve the battlefield, protect thousands of historic artifacts such as Civil War weapons, medals, uniforms and letters in climate-controlled rooms, interpret what happened during the three-day battle and promote continuing Civil War education for visitors, said foundation president Joanne Hanley.
"Gettysburg is the only visitors center and museum in the national park system that's owned and operated by a private nonprofit group," she said. "No state or federal money is used to operate it.''
A center costing more than $100 million "probably wouldn't have been funded by federal officials," she said. "The park service has a backlog of maintenance and construction needs; Gettysburg would have to get in line with the other 400 park sites."
Hello, 4 million visitors
Gettysburg is located in southern Adams County, a few miles north of the Maryland border. The county each year draws about 3 million tourists but this year -- the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle -- close to 4 million visitors are expected.
Gettysburg, a town of only 8,000, could get as many as 200,000 visitors just from June 28 to July 7, the height of the anniversary celebration, said Carl Whitehill, spokesman for the Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Many officials think the unique partnership between the Gettysburg Foundation and the National Park Service is the major reason the Gettysburg military park has grown and prospered so much in the past 20 years.
Andrew Masich, president of the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh -- and also chairman of the state's Historical & Museum Commission -- thinks such a partnership could and should be duplicated at other national parks.
"This park is the model for successful public-private partnerships," he said.
Almost all national parks are funded primarily with federal tax dollars, which are limited due to annual battles over federal spending and taxation. The Gettysburg visitors center provides a lot of private funding to augment federal funds.
The Gettysburg Foundation, as it now exists, resulted from a 2006 merger of two previous groups that wanted to preserve Civil War artifacts and restore the battleground to the way it looked in July 1863.
The first group, called the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, was formed in 1989 by several thousand local citizens who wanted to preserve the park and the nearby Eisenhower National Historic Site, where President Dwight Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, lived in the 1950s-'60s.
A 'miracle' in the making
Then in 1998, things really got rolling when Mr. Kinsley and other business people formed the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Foundation.
Their group agreed to partner with John Latschar -- who was then the Gettysburg park superintendent -- to begin the detailed process of building a new visitors center, restoring the park and having it ready for the 150th anniversary.
"He realized the artifacts were deteriorating and something needed to be done," Mr. Kinsley said. The partnership "was really his idea."
But Mr. Masich said Mr. Kinsley should get a lot of the credit.
"All Americans who appreciate the importance of their history owe Bob Kinsley and farsighted National Park Service officials a debt of gratitude for the efforts they have made in preserving and interpreting Gettysburg," he said. "Bob has a rare combination of vision and perseverance that can work miracles, and the restoration of the Gettysburg battlefield is just such a miracle."
Mr. Kinsley called his efforts "a good way to give back to the American people. I have a great love of history and I consider myself a lucky man."
In the late 1990s, he said, he learned of Mr. Latschar's idea to "restore the battlefield to as closely as possible to its 1863 appearance, removing invasive woodlands and buildings that weren't there during the war and putting fences back where they'd been."
He said the partnership "was a great combination of individuals and has exceeded expectations."
One of the first things that happened was the removal, in 2000, of a tall observation tower at the battlefield, which some people liked to ascend so they could scan the landscape, but others said was historically wrong because it wasn't there in 1863.
"It came down in July 2000, the day I signed the partnership agreement with the parks service," Mr. Kinsley said.
Another major issue was replacing the old visitors center, which was located in a small, cramped house on Cemetery Ridge -- the site of Union headquarters on July 2-3, 1863. Park officials and historians wanted to remove the old center in order to bring the hilly ground back to the way it looked during the battle.
They also wanted to remove a nearby circular concrete building erected in the 1960s to house the Cyclorama painting. It's now located inside the new visitors center. The old center and old Cyclorama building are now both gone from Cemetery Ridge.
There was some disagreement over where to build the new visitors center and museum, Mr. Kinsley said. Some people favored a site 3 miles east of the battlefield, but he thought that was too far away. The new center was built on Baltimore Pike, a couple miles from the center of Gettysburg.
The two private groups eventually merged to create the current Gettysburg Foundation.
"It was a good marriage," Mr. Kinsley said. The friends group, which had thousands of members, "brought a lot to the table."
Mr. Kirby said the partnership is even more important in light of declining appropriations from Congress and the ongoing "sequestration," or a hold that's been put on some federal allocations.
"In these difficult times, the partnership is a life-saver," he said.
Tom Barnes: email@example.com or 717-623-1238. First Published June 9, 2013 4:00 AM