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Independence Day ’02: Document coming Feb. 1

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It doesn't have quite the same ring as July 4, but Independence Day 2002 in Utah will be Feb. 1, when a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence is formally unveiled at the state Capitol as part of a monthlong exhibit expected to draw tens of thousands of Utah schoolchildren and Olympic visitors.

"It is one of the most significant documents in the history of this world," said state Olympic officer Lane Beattie who, along with the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, has been coordinating the unprecedented exhibit. "It is why the United States came into being. It not only declared independence, but it also stated why."

The document, reported to be in near-mint condition, is one of 25 known surviving copies of the official first printing of the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress July 4, 1776.

The document was purchased for $8.14 million by television producer Norman Lear and Internet entrepreneur David Hayden. The nonprofit foundation People for the American Way, founded by Lear, is facilitating a traveling exhibit of the Declaration of Independence "to inspire and educate."

The Utah exhibition marks the first time the document has been taken outside of California since its purchase. It also comes with an educational exhibit to be displayed in the Capitol rotunda and a documentary videotape presentation.

The elaborate exhibit almost didn't happen, said Natalie Gochnour, spokeswoman for Gov. Mike Leavitt. After the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., Games organizers began looking to scale back cultural events. An exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls was scrapped, and other activities, including a grand "Welcome the World" gala, were reduced in size and profile.

SLOC and state officials talked about what to do with the Declaration of Independence exhibit, but "we had such a strong feeling that we did not want to compromise this opportunity for Utahns," Gochnour said.

In anticipation of the document's arrival, the Capitol will soon undergo a heightened state of security with the addition of metal detectors, restricted parking and entrances, bag searches and more security officers. The exhibit also comes with its own team of security officers, and every night the document will be locked in a state vault, probably in the state treasurer's office, Beattie said.

The exhibit will undoubtedly inspire awe among all who see it. But it also comes with headaches for lawmakers, who will be in session from Feb. 1-7 at the same time throngs are expected to start making their way to the Capitol.

The logistics of legislative meetings with public testimony coinciding with increased demand for parking by exhibit visitors and delays for security checks could be nightmarish.

Beattie admits there are no plans to increase parking for exhibit visitors. Right now, the only public parking is on the extreme northwest side of the Capitol, while entrance to the Capitol will be restricted to the east side — making for a long walk for Capitol visitors who choose to drive.

Beattie said many, if not most, of the visitors will be Utah schoolchildren who will be dropped off at the east entrance by school buses and then picked up at a west exit. For adults, there will be clearly marked shuttles from the downtown area that will take visitors back and forth to the Capitol.

"We don't want people to drive their cars up here," Beattie said.

The increased security and consequent delays could mean fewer people testifying on issues before the Legislature. But it is a small sacrifice for such an honor, House Speaker Marty Stephens said.

"For the three or four days we are in session before the Olympics, when the declaration will be on view to the public, we'll just live" with any inconvenience to the Legislature, he said

Lawmakers are closing to public tours the third and fourth floors of the Capitol, where chambers and hearing rooms are located. The busloads of schoolchildren coming to see the document will not be allowed to come into chamber galleries or otherwise disrupt proceedings.

The exhibit, which is free to the public, will be open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily through March 15.

It will also include daily readings of the document by invited guests from around the state.

Organizers are expecting thousands of visitors, Utahns primarily, but also Olympic guests, to make their way to the Capitol to view the document and learn more about America's history. And that, Lear said, was the intent behind purchasing the document.

"Instead of keeping it in private hands on some wall someplace, this will travel to schools, to libraries in 50 states," Lear said at the time he purchased it.

"Those words are for everybody. We want to remind everybody of them," he said.

Contributing: Bob Bernick Jr.

E-mail: spang@desnews.com