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Private group to put new face on Old Deseret

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It is perhaps unfair to compare the Mormon pioneer village of Old Deseret to Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

Renowned throughout the world, Williamsburg has been offering its unique interpretations of colonial history for generations. Old Deseret, meanwhile, has languished in obscurity, suffering from inadequate funding needed to put it on a scale with more-famous historical re-creations such as Williamsburg.But just watch what happens at Old Deseret over the next 10 years, says Courtland Nelson, director of the Utah Division of State Parks. Until now, the division has operated This Is the Place State Park where Old Deseret is located.

"In 10 years, we would hope that people would come from all over the world to have this experience," Nelson said. "The intent is that it will have received national recognition for its presentation of living history, eminence in terms of its quality and professionalism."

But it won't happen with Nelson or state parks at the helm. Through legislation passed this year with the support of the governor's office, the management and operation of This Is the Place State Park will be turned over to a private foundation that state officials believe is better suited to raise the kind of money needed to take the facility into the realm of world-renowned history parks.

The This Is the Place Foundation will receive about $1 million a year in state funds toward the park's operations, but it will have to pay for most operations and expansion through sales of various products, entrance fees and private donations.

Because the foundation is private, Nelson said it will have much greater latitude to enter into cooperative partnerships with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for interpretation of early Utah history. State parks has received criticism over the years from those who believe the state should have no role whatsoever in the interpretation of church history as a matter of church/state separation.

"Whatever difficulty we had in dealing with that as a state organization, the new foundation won't have that problem," Nelson said. "The foundation could enter into contracts with the church for historical research or training or various activities. There is no question it could be more closely joined with the church (than state parks was allowed), and that is to the benefit of both parties."

Gov. Mike Leavitt will sign legislation Monday to transfer the park's operation to the foundation. The park itself will remain the property of the state, and several state officials will be on the foundation board. Carol Nixon, former director of the Department of Community and Economic Development and GOP gubernatorial candidate, is the foundation's executive director.

The transfer is the latest step in a long-range management plan begun several years ago to elevate Old Deseret into an international attraction. The pioneer village was expanded and reopened in 1996 amid considerable fanfare.

But Nelson is the first to admit that it isn't enough. And there is no way the state could ever invest the kind of money in facilities and programs needed to make it world-class. It was so expensive, in fact, that parks officials believed it would soon drain funds away from other state parks.

Parks officials met with officials from other state departments, historians, businessmen, philanthropists, the governor's office, park volunteers and others to plot a strategy that would move the park out of the state government bureaucracy and into a blend of partial government funding, business acumen and nonprofit management skills.

A new board was established, and slowly the state has been phased out of the operation of the facility. State employees have been transferred, and the park's functions - such as management of the facilities, interpretation of the history and expansion of the programs - have been shifted to the new board.

Although the state retains ownership of the park and its artifacts, it no longer has control over the content of the various programs offered.

Nelson said one goal for the next five years is to develop a living history facility that is recognized regionally for its accurate portrayal of territorial Utah. "We're not quite there yet. There are days when it works, it is real good, and there are other days where it doesn't," Nelson said.

Additional five-year goals are that the facility will be financially solvent and that it will reflect a feeling of maturity as wagons, livestock and farm fields are added to reflect a "fully operational landscape and animal husbandry and crop program," Nelson said.

Ten years from now, Nelson envisions a living history park that will have been expanded to include other aspects of Utah prior to statehood, including mining, railroads, the fur trappers and Native Americans. The park has 400 acres on which it can expand those themes.

More importantly, by that time the park itself should have received national recognition as a historical destination. That will likely mean an array of shops and restaurants and opportunities for visitors to experience what life was like in Utah in the mid-1800s.

"That will be a challenge, to find those aspects that generate revenue for the park, that complement and enhance the experience," Nelson said. "We don't want revenue being the driving force for the park."

But that call will be made by the foundation, not state parks.

"If we are serious about achieving our goals of a world-class living history park, then we have to look at new ways to run this kind of facility," Nelson said. "Not to knock state parks or state government, but the foundation is better suited to do that."