Karen Hill thought the legal paperwork was complete when the Department of the Interior formally established the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in January. But there is another agreement that needs to be finalized between the Harriet Tubman Home and National Park Service.
Hill, president and CEO of the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, said both sides are negotiating what she referred to as an implementation agreement. The document will outline how the Tubman home and National Park Service will manage the South Street property.
When the Department of the Interior established the park, the National Park Service agreed to acquire the Thompson Memorial AME Zion Church and parsonage on Parker Street in Auburn. The Harriet Tubman Home and AME Zion Church committed to jointly managing the South Street sites — Tubman's former residence and the Home for Aged are among the landmarks — with the National Park Service.
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While the arrangements were detailed in the general agreement signed in January, a more formal accord was required to outline the roles for each party.
That was confirmed by Fort Stanwix National Monument Superintendent Frank Barrows, who is overseeing the National Park Service's work in Auburn. He described the document as a "cooperative management agreement."
"It is the legal mechanism that we will use to share resources, whether those are monetary resources, human resources and just better defines how we will work collaboratively to manage the site together," he said.
Hill indicated that the agreement will take time to finalize. She said attorneys must review the language before it's approved. And because one of the parties is a New York nonprofit organization, the state attorney general's office must review it, too.
According to Hill, the Tubman home and AME Zion Church weren't aware that the pact was needed after the formal establishment of the park. But she acknowledged its significance for the future of the South Street property.
"It is actually the important document that we execute in order to have any resources begin to flow to support the Harriet Tubman Home, so it's pretty important," she said.
There has been activity at the Parker Street church and parsonage over the last several months as the National Park Service continues preservation and rehabilitation work at the historic site.
Barrows said the projects are focused on emergency repairs and stabilization of the buildings. The National Park Service has awarded a contract for asbestos removal at the parsonage, he added. Once the asbestos is removed, renovations can commence.
For now, the agency's main focus is on drafting two documents — cultural landscape and historic structures reports — that will be important for the entire park, including the church and parsonage. A cultural landscape report provides greater detail about the properties. The structural report will outline the history of the relevant buildings within the park.
The National Park Service has partnered with the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation in Massachusetts and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse to complete the reports.
Barrows said a researcher has gathered information from local congregation members, Tubman descendants and historians about the church. They have also reviewed hundreds of newspaper articles about important moments at the house of worship, including concerts, guest speakers and sermons.
"That will be really important to have that context as we continue that preservation work," he said.
There doesn't appear to be a set timetable for the release of the reports. Barrows said they're awaiting a draft of the cultural landscape report, which should be available soon. The first draft of the historic structures report may be completed by the end of this year.
The National Park Service doesn't have full-time employees at the Harriet Tubman Home yet, but they provided assistance during a busy week for the landmark.
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The Tubman home had an uptick in visitors around Fourth of July. Barrows and Hill said there were as many as 250 visitors a day.
National Park Service rangers from nearby sites — Fort Stanwix and the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls — supported the Harriet Tubman Home staff, Barrows said. Rangers also helped with the Tubman pilgrimage in May.
"Those two things were opportunities for us to help our partner in a time of need," Barrows said.
The increased number of visitors to the Harriet Tubman Home encouraged Hill, who believes that more promotion of the park will continue to attract tourists to the site.
As demand rises, the operating hours of the Tubman home likely won't change much from the current schedule. The South Street landmark is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
Hill didn't rule out some minor changes, such as opening on Sundays during the summer. But staffing is a concern. While Rev. Paul Carter has led tours at the Tubman home for years, the facility lacks resources to expand its workforce. That's another reason why the joint management agreement is important. Once it's in place, the National Park Service will be able to provide more assistance at the South Street property.
The Harriet Tubman Home has a new website.
The new digital home, harriettubmanhome.com, offers visitors more information about the historic property. There are links to news stories about Tubman and details on how to make donations.
Hill views the website as a way to complement the Tubman park's website, nps.gov/hart, and to share updates on items of interest that may not be relevant to the national park.
"It's just another communication vehicle and actually it's something that we're quite frequently asked for," she said.
Having another avenue to solicit donations is also important. The National Park Service will have some federal resources available, but private funding will be needed.
Hill said the financial assistance is important for the Tubman home to address unexpected problems, such as a tree that recently fell after a lightning strike. She doesn't believe it's one of the original apple trees on the property, but wants to ensure that it doesn't pose a risk to visitors.
The website isn't the only change Hill has sought to improve the Harriet Tubman Home's infrastructure. She said there have been preliminary discussions with NYSEG about removing the overhead power lines that pass through the South Street property.
The impetus for the conversations was a lightning strike that occurred last summer. A transformer blew and power lines came down near the Home for the Aged, Hill said. The structure wasn't damaged, but the lines burned the ground in a few spots near the house.
"We should not have those lines overhead," Hill said. "They either need to be moved to the perimeter or they need to be buried. I'm just trying to create a groundswell of support for that."
Hill said the Tubman home contacted NYSEG about moving the power lines and the company has sent representatives to the property.
"They're interested in what we have to say," she said. "There's definitely more work that needs to be done between ourselves and NYSEG to come to some understanding on that."
As the Tubman home awaits action by NYSEG, there will be other infrastructure improvements near the property.
A road project will begin next year to improve the stretch of South Street that passes by the Tubman landmarks. Hill expects preliminary conversations to begin later this year on a new visitor center.
The state has committed to support the construction of a new Tubman park visitor center through the Upstate Revitalization Initiative, an economic development competition that was held in 2015. Central New York was one of three winners and received $500 million to support projects in the region.
Hill said the infrastructure upgrades will be important for the future of the park, which she hopes will be fully operational when a newly designed $20 bill bearing Tubman's image will be released in 2020.
"That is certainly going to spur an awful lot more interest in the site," she said.
Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.