Coalition shares passion for Civil War

March 31, 2000|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Randy Harper had built a career in financial consulting and real estate when he turned his attention four years ago to a boyhood passion - the Civil War.

Harper, who now wants to build a large Civil War museum in downtown Hagerstown, has experience with one other similar venture.

In 1996, he put together a group that submitted a proposal to build a visitors center at the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa. The National Park Service picked another bid, but many of the same people who worked on that project now comprise the nonprofit Antietam Creek Coalition.

That group is working to place a Smithsonian Institution-affiliated Civil War museum along West Antietam and South Potomac streets.

"It's grown and expanded and gotten better since then," said Harper, who owns a Dallas consulting firm called the McGorrisk Group.


Harper's team includes one of the world's largest museum design firms, Wall Street financiers, a local banker and a traffic-analysis firm.

"We all happen to share a strong interest in the Civil War," said Richard A. Bellis, principal of Education Capital Markets, a Herndon-Va. firm that obtains money on the bond market.

Bellis has sold bonds for several museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum of Natural History and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The Antietam Creek Coalition also includes Dennis E. Frye, a Washington County native and Civil War historian.

Frye served as president of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites from 1995 to 1998, and convinced its board of directors to relocate the organization in Hagerstown.

When he was preparing the Gettysburg proposal, Harper said he sought advice from Frye, who expressed concerns that such a project could divert money that would be better spent on battlefield preservation.

Frye ended up backing Harper's effort in Gettysburg and then led him to Hagerstown when it failed.

"If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't be in Hagerstown," Harper said.

Although he has little background in Civil War museums, Harper said he has extensive experience dealing with high-dollar figures.

He played a role in the recovery of the scandal-ridden Savings & Loan industry in the 1980s. He said he advised several financially troubled thrifts on how best to cut their losses before being transferred into receivership.

More recently, Harper said he has worked on commercial development projects, building large office complexes.

The size of those developments - and the vast amounts of money involved with the S&Ls - dwarfs the $46 million museum proposal, he said.

"The scope of it is actually rather small compared to those projects," he said.

Harper, 50, said his interest in the Civil War began in the early 1950s while he was growing up in Virginia. He said he watched television specials on the war and later wrote college term papers on the conflict.

Harper said he has assembled a team of people with unique expertise in the field of museum design and construction.

Ralph Appelbaum Associates is one of the world's largest firms specializing in museum design. The New York company's clients have included the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Newseum in Arlington, Va., and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

"We liked working with Randy. We found he put together an excellent team and an excellent proposal for that endeavor," said James "Chip" Jeffries, an associate and project manager with the firm. "We couldn't ask for a better group of professionals."

Ralph Appelbaum has built a reputation for innovative museum exhibits that go beyond merely displaying artifacts.

For the new Frederick Phineas and Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History, Appelbaum built a 360-foot spiral ramp to demonstrate the enormous age of the universe.

As patrons make their way along the ramp toward the planetarium, they see markings that denote various events in cosmic history. The entire age of man, for instance, is represented by a strand of hair.

Jeffries said he has similar story-telling ideas for the Civil War museum. Patrons might enter a room and see the projected image of a general writing letters to the family members of a fallen comrade. Visitors could then look inside a periscope and push a button to read the text of those letters.

"Museums used to be about the collections. That's not so much what museums are about anymore," Jeffries said.

Harper's Gettysburg proposal called for building a visitors center and museum without commercial development.

Instead, the National Park Service selected a proposal from a York, Pa., group that permits profit-making enterprises in the battlefield, including stores and an IMAX theater.

Harper responded by filing a protest with the Interior Department under federal procurement regulations in an attempt to block the development.

"We protested pretty vehemently. Our beef wasn't with the National Park Service, per se, but with certain individuals involved in the process," he said. "It wasn't done professionally, but that's water under the bridge."

Now, Harper said the Hagerstown project has his full attention.

Many of those who were involved in the Gettysburg proposal expressed similar enthusiasm about Hagerstown.

"I'm very interested in the development of the inner city," said Thomas J. Gerhart, a vice president at Hagerstown Trust who has assisted with some of the financial analysis.

Fred K. Teeter Jr., president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, said the business community is impressed with Frye's involvement and the rsums of others in the group.

"That all reads pretty well and Dennis is a guy of some substance People trust what he says," Teeter said. "The guys he's surrounded himself with seem to know what they are doing and apparently have a track record."

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