Polk site survives chopping block

news@charlotteobserver.comAugust 4, 2013 

Two months ago the historic sites were destined to close as legislators considered slashing or ending dozens of N.C. programs.

But on Wednesday it was business as usual at Pineville’s President James K. Polk State Historic Site and three other sites around the state. The four sites survived the state’s withering budget process, though not unscathed – each taking a $10,000 hit in operating cuts over the next two years.

Still, Polk site manager Scott Warren was happy.

“Ecstatic is more like it,” Warren said. “We’re still here and still telling the story of Mecklenburg County’s only U.S. president.”

The site honors the nation’s 11th president (1844-1849). Polk, born in 1795, was responsible for expanding the United States to the Pacific Ocean. He fought Mexico for Texas – and got New Mexico and California as part of the spoils. He established an independent federal treasury and lowered tariffs that pleased his native South.

At 11, his family moved to Tennessee, where Polk was a state legislator, governor and represented the state in the U.S. House. He was a two-term House speaker.

In March, Gov. Pat McCrory had recommended in his proposed budget mothballing the Polk site. He also proposed closing three other historic sites: the Wayne County birthplace of Charles Aycock, N.C. governor in the early 1900s; the Weaverville birthplace of Zebulon Vance, a three-term N.C. governor and later U.S. senator; and the House in the Horseshoe, a Colonial-era residence in Moore County.

The closings would have saved the state nearly $1 million.

But, after hearing from supporters of all four sites, legislators kept them open with the smaller operating budgets.

“There is no question that the passionate support of families, children, volunteers, re-enactors and presidential history lovers is what kept this site open,” said Sharon Van Kuren, president of the Polk site’s support fund.

The site is an important destination for the town of Pineville. In 1904, the Mecklenburg chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution raised a plaque at the birthplace site. Sixty-four years later, Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson, helped open the Polk site on 21 acres.

The site will remain a required field trip for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools third-graders.

McCrory recommended its closing even after legislators appropriated $130,000 to renovate the facility’s visitor center.

The renovations are scheduled to begin soon.

Warren, the manager, said attendance fell off after July 1, the start of a new fiscal year and the designated closing date.

“I think people had in mind that the Polk site had closed,” he said. “We’re getting the word out that, no, we’re still open.”

To cut operating expenses, all of the state’s 22 historic sites had hours cut back, said Dale Coats, deputy director for the N.C. Division of State Historic Sites.

Coats said support groups and volunteers at each site let McCrory and legislators know they didn’t want the facilities closed. None of the permanent employees lost their jobs.

Now they’ll be called on to raise money to offset the $10,000 in cuts.

Coats has no doubt that they will be successful.

“These sites are just too important for telling North Carolina’s story,” he said. “They’re important for the education of our school children. Keeping them open is important for the preservation of the properties.

“Had the sites closed it wouldn’t have been too long before they fell into disrepair.”

Want to go?

The President James K. Polk Historic Site, 12031 Lancaster Hwy., is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Phone: 704-889-7145. Online: nchistoricsites.org/polk

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