22-acre site is part of riverfront project
BY KIRAN KRISHNAMURTHY
RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
FREDERICKSBURG - Fredericksburg will be the site of the national slavery
museum, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder
The decision to put the museum on a 22-acre donated parcel along the
Rappahannock River caps more than two
months of intense lobbying for the project by Richmond and
Hampton University and Petersburg also had expressed interest in landing
the museum, which Wilder first proposed during a 1993 visit to Africa
while he was Virginia's governor.
Wilder said yesterday that selecting a site might pale in comparison
the work ahead. "It's a gargantuan task. In the end, it will be
something that Virginians and the nation should be proud of," he said.
The museum board's 2-1 vote endorsed a consultant's recommendation of
the site at Celebrate Virginia, a
2,100-acre golf, tourism and commercial venture planned along the
Rappahannock in Fredericksburg and
neighboring Stafford County.
Board member Ruby Martin of Richmond, former secretary of administration
under Wilder, cast the dissenting vote during a conference call on
She said she favored Richmond, noting that the same consultant, Michael
Neiditch, had extolled Richmond as a
logical site in a January letter to Wilder. Martin, Wilder and Hampton
University President William R. Harvey
comprise the board.
In a Sept. 19 letter to Wilder, however, Neiditch recommended
Fredericksburg because of its proximity to
Washington and its airports; ample room for construction and expansion;
and the area's wealth of Colonial history.
Riverfront access also figured promi- nently. Wilder, a grandson of
slaves, has mentioned waterside exhibits that could include a slave ship
reproduction and re-creation of the cramped quarters Africans endured
during the voyages to the New World.
"It's a glorious site. It's land that is as it was in the Colonial era
when the first settlers came," Neiditch said.
Wilder and Neiditch, a former executive with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial
Museum, said money didn't determine
which locality got the museum because the project's scope is so large,
estimated at $100 million to $200 million.
More important, they said, were actual site characteristics and the
availability of a large visiting audience.
Fredericksburg City Council has tentatively pledged $1 million, on
condition Wilder or a designee return and give a public presentation.
Celebrate Virginia's developer, the Silver Cos., has offered between 20
and 25 acres which it values at $10 million to $12 million. Wilder said
he plans to visit Fredericksburg soon.
Fredericksburg officials greeted the announcement with jubilation, for
the most part.
"We're excited. It's time to go to work," said City Manager Marvin S.
Mayor Bill Beck said the museum would be a boon to the region, but that
he wasn't sure the site was appropriate.
A longtime critic of the Celebrate Virginia project, he said choosing
commercial center for a museum dedicated to a solemn chapter in history
"poses some problems."
Celebrate Virginia's developer, Larry Silver, said the museum site would
be "a separate entity" carved from the commercial venture. He said the
site would be buffered by the river and by woods, giving visitors a
"true sense of entering a special place."
Richmond City Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin was blunt about the decision:
"I'm disappointed that Governor Wilder
allowed himself to be bought by this rich white man who is simply going
to exploit our history and heritage for his personal gain," he said.
"He will display [the museum] in a Disney Land-type atmosphere . . .
got sold on the auction block to the
highest bidder once again," El-Amin added.
Other Richmond council members were more conciliatory. "We couldn't
compete," said Councilman G. Manoli
Loupassi. "The developer in Fredericksburg was willing to give them so
Wilder said he hopes a structure, not necessarily the museum itself,
be built within three years. He said
organizers must hire a staff, find office space and start crafting a
museum program and identifying artifacts.
Fund raising is also vital. State officials say $1.1 million is
available in the form of grants. In his January letter to Wilder,
Neiditch suggested seeking $5 million from the state, at $1.25 million
per year over four years, to assist in planning. Wilder yesterday
mentioned wanting to establish charter, individual and family
The former governor also said he plans to seek federal designation for
the museum, which he said would open
additional funding opportunities. He said the board would change its
name within the next week or so. He also said he wants to expand the
board's membership to include 20 or more "people of substance."
He said comedian Bill Cosby remains keenly interested in the project,
and that he also plans to talk with music producer Quincy Jones and
actress Cicely Tyson.
Wilder has projected up to 2 million visitors annually. Some museum
experts have said a museum outside
Washington won't draw nearly that many people.
At the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, for example, only the
and Space, Natural History and American History museums each exceeded
the 2 million annual visitors mark in 2000. The Smithsonian's
African-American history museum in nearby Anacostia saw 26,000 visitors
in 1999, before closing for renovations.
Wilder and Neiditch have said they envision busloads of school children
and others visiting the museum. They also say the museum would feature a
library and research center where visiting faculty could spend
Wilder added that tourists may be more apt to extend their trips beyond
Washington in light of the Sept. 11
terrorist attacks. Fredericksburg is within an hour of Washington, which
counted 19 million visitors last year, according to the DC Chamber of
Commerce. Fredericksburg officials also have noted that southbound
travelers on Interstate 95 must pass Fredericksburg but can bypass
Richmond by taking Interstate 295 north of that city.
Richmond officials continuously massaged their offer of land and other
incentives, finally putting up a 22-acre site along the James River near
the docks of the Annabel Lee. Richmond officials pegged the cost of the
land, preparing the site and possibly moving Main Street to protect it
from flooding at up to $5 million.
Fredericksburg officials and Silver, the developer, said they did not
enhance their initial offer to win the museum.
The Silver Cos. has agreed to repay the city's $1 million pledge, with