Pushing for all three will hurt Forks of the Road

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 14, 2007

Money, quality or time?

If you were to plan a building, which would you choose to control — the cost of the building, the quality of the building or how long it will take to build the building?

If you are a client — you want all three.

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The reality is that you can only have two.

This was one of the first rules I learned in architecture school.

If you want a beautiful building in a short amount of time, expect to pay for it. But, if you want a cheap building built tomorrow, don’t expect it to be a masterpiece.

You can have two but not all three.

Unfortunately, the City of Natchez is looking for all three when it comes to a memorial and interpretive center for Forks of the Road slave market site.

Or at least that is the way it sounded Tuesday night during the public hearing concerning the site.

After the preliminary boundary study was presented Tuesday night and public comment was complete, Natchez Mayor Phillip West was invited to speak about the project.

When West talks about the Forks of the Road, he speaks with energy and spirit.

Listening to him discuss plans for a memorial or interpretive center at the site of one of the South’s largest slave markets, it is evident that the project is very important to the mayor.

In fact, West is so committed to the project that he does not want to wait for the project to wind its way through the halls of the U.S. Congress.

The project is too important to wait for the federal studies and congressional review that would be required before becoming a reality under the auspices of the National Park Service.

That was the message West brought to a handful of residents who came to the public hearing.

As an example West pointed to the William Johnson House. West mentioned lobbying in Washington, D.C., for the project in the early 1990s. Fifteen years later the project was dedicated and opened to the public as part of the Natchez Historical Park.

That is 15 years West says he and the city do not have to wait for the Forks of the Road project to become a reality.

Unfortunately, the city does not have the money to foot the bill for such a project. Instead, West says that he will get the money from other sources, including the state legislature, non-profit foundations and other sources.

What West didn’t mention Tuesday night is that the first efforts to preserve the William Johnson House were not by the National Park Service but by the Preservation Society of Ellicott Hill some 15 years before the house was donated to the city.

Those early days of the William Johnson House are not unlike the current situation with the Forks of the Road.

While the Preservation Society did many good things to preserve the William Johnson House, they did not have the resources to fully restore and maintain the historic property. Between 1975 and 1990, the society worked to raise money for its restoration.

But restoration did not happen until the project was given to National Park Service.

It is evident that West and the city have the best of intentions for the Forks of the Road project. It is an important project. But if the city is limited in its funding and has set an expedited timetable for the development, then the quality of the project may suffer. Or like the William Johnson House, the project may languish for 15 years, until it is finally given over to the National Park Service.

If the city is committed, as it should be, to building a lasting memorial to the Forks of the Road, it should learn from the lessons of the William Johnson House and give the project to the National Park Service now.

The William Johnson house is a stellar example of how the park service tells the story of Natchez.

It would be a shame if in the city’s efforts to control the time and money of the Forks of the Road project, the quality of this critical piece of Natchez’s story is compromised.

Ben Hillyer is the web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.