Reenactors react to demise of Spanish Quarter

By Michael Isam |

At the end of August, the St. Augustine City Commission voted to close the Colonial Spanish Quarter because it continues to be a money losing attraction for the city. The decision ended a seven-decade long program of active preservation, restoration and interpretation at the city-run historical attraction on St. George Street.

The city is working with the University of Florida, which owns the property, to forge a partnership with a private company that will help reinvent and eventually reopen the attraction. The goal is to return it to profitability.

But for some of the staff whose livelihood depended on the living history museum, the decision did not sit well.

“I have worked in the quarter for 10 years and we hear that a lot,” said Marco Warren, the resident leather worker. “We hear from the City Commission that we don’t have what the public wants. Well, we have what the public wants. It’s that they don’t know we are here. People pass on St. George Street and look through the windows of these high walls, which are historically correct, and see chickens and they say, ‘Oh, chickens!’ and keep on walking. It is a shame that people don’t know we are here. People come here for the history, not the T-shirt shops.”

Spanish Quarter employee Carla Hull agrees.

“I have decided that if this is the way the City Commission is going to treat its history, I don’t want to be here anymore,” said Hull, a part-time employee and the most vocal opponent of the closing.

She said once the Spanish Quarter closed she was packing up and leaving the state.

“It may sound drastic,” she said, “but I’m going to a new home.”

City Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Klein was adamant about knowing what was going to happen to the Spanish Quarter before she cast a vote to close it. Heavily involved with the history of St. Augustine, she reluctantly voted with the majority, but only after getting the understanding that the doors could open to full use as early as March 2012.

“It was totally an administrative action to limit the hours and the costs,”Sikes-Kline said in a phone interview. “In today’s economy, raising revenue by increasing the cost on already money-strapped citizens is the absolute last resort.”

“History, as a tourist attraction, has an unquantifiable return (on investment),” she said. “It can’t be measured in dollars and cents right away. It may take years and it may never reach profit-making stature. As far as a company willing to invest $1 million dollars in the Quarter, I am a little leery of the statement.”

Gary N. Smith, an adjunct professor who teaches museum management at Baylor University, is also the current president of Dallas Heritage Village.

“The model used for the financial support, a public-private shared responsibility model, is broken,” he said. “All museums operating on this model are having problems, mine included. My village is lucky in that the Dallas area is quite large and there is a very large base upon which to draw, but even large cities are beginning to feel the economic crunch and we may not be so fortunate in the next budget cycle.”

According to Smith’s article in the Spring 2011 edition of History News, the public-private shared responsibility model is the most widely used for the restoration and/or relocation of one or more historical properties. These arrangements generally provided for public financial support coupled with private management of the property as a public museum.

Former St. Augustine mayor George Gardner has argued for keeping the Spanish Quarter open.

In remarks prepared for an August commission meeting he said, “In 1600, fourteen years after Drake’s raid, the Spanish government conducted an inquiry as to whether there was enough value in St. Augustine to continue efforts to keep it alive.That inquiry,” Gardner wrote, “actually favored abandoning the garrison, but lack of resources prevented it. Today, St. Augustine’s government is poised to abandon its signature heritage program, while finding the money to commemorate the very heritage icon it’s abandoning.”

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