VIRGINIA CITY – The Montana Heritage Commission is moving forward with a proposal to sell real estate and other personal items around Virginia and Nevada Cities, despite objections from some local residents.
The proposal to sell the real estate and personal items began last year and the public process to gather comments specific to the proposal concluded Jan. 28, said Marilyn Ross, Montana Heritage Commission board member and interim executive director.
Ross took over the executive director job on an interim basis in January after former director Paul Reichert resigned.
The main goal of the project is simple, Ross said.
“We need to make the resource more manageable and … work toward economic self sufficiency,” she said. “One of the things we know needed to be done was a real clean up of those items that have no clear connection to Alder Gulch and our interpretive plan or have deteriorated to the point that they clearly cannot be restored or saved.”
The money from the sales will be put in a trust and used for restoration of other Heritage Commission property in the two towns.
The Montana Heritage Commission was formed in the late 1990s when the state purchased properties in the Nevada and Virginia Cities formerly owned by the Bovy family.
According to their website: “The Montana Heritage Commission owns a total of 160 acres in 42 unconnected parcels. Besides lots in the town of Virginia City, the state owns approximately ten acres in the Nevada City townsite and approximately ninety acres of mining claims between the two sites. The Commission also owns most of the artifacts acquired from Bovey Restorations, and any artifacts acquired since 1997.”
But what gets lost in the discussion about how to clean up Nevada and Virginia Cities is a consideration of what are actually historic artifacts and what are trash, said Toni James, business owner in Virginia City.
“I feel that they are selling things that shouldn’t be sold that have some historical value to Virginia City,” James said. “I think the tidying up is fine but what they’re doing is selling things that should be kept here and throwing things away that they could sell.”
The method of determining what is garbage and what are treasures is flawed, she said. That simple process should involve local residents who are passionate and knowledgeable about the town’s history, James said.
“We’ve had very little say in it,” she said. “I think they’ve made up their minds and they know what they’re going to do and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
The Heritage Commission’s next meeting is Feb. 24 in Helena, Ross said. The commission will make a recommendation on the proposal and then forward it to the Montana Land Board, which has final say over all state-owned land sales.
“All that the Heritage Commission can do is recommend this real estate for sale to the land board, it’s the state land board that will ultimately make that decision,” she said.
Ross is concerned that people in the community are confused about why the Heritage Commission is selling the items and property.
“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding that we are desperate for money and therefore selling off historic artifacts,” Ross said.
What is motivating the commission is safety and better management of their assets in both Virginia and Nevada Cities, she said.
“It was motivated by the need to clean up and deal with life safety issues to make the resource more attractive, more family friendly and to get it to a size more manageable for us,” Ross said.
But in an attempt to focus on safety, the Heritage Commission may be harming the very thing they’re mandate to conserve, said Roger Williams, a Virginia City resident whose roots go back generations.
Williams is concerned the Heritage Commission may not really know the value of the things they’re selling.
“You sanitize this place and you’re going to have nothing left here,” he said. “We value what’s here because we understand the value of this historic stuff.”
Part of the personal items the Heritage Commission is planning to sell is old machinery in Nevada City. These items the Commission sees as trash actually get a lot of people to stop, Williams said. People don’t just want to see a bunch of empty buildings, they want to see the vestiges of the way things were and how life used to be. It’s all part of the story Nevada and Virginia Cities have to tell.
“To us it’s part of our heritage and it means something to us and it means something to a great many number of people or they wouldn’t come here,” he said. The closer you get to just a collection of old buildings the less people are going to be interested in it.”
But the story of the two towns must be told in a safe way and management of the state’s assets need to be done with the greater Montana population in mind along with the input of the local community, Ross said.
“Nevada City and Virginia City belong to the people of Montana and we have an obligation to make this site as safe and as pleasant of an educational experience for the families of Montana that we can,” she said. “It’s all part and parcel of a smart management approach.”