When Congress created the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area in 1996, its status as a national treasure was permanent – but its federal funding was not.
A sunset clause will halt National Park Service funding Sept. 30 unless steps are taken to extend eligibility.
“In all, there are 12 heritage areas, all in the same situation,” said Dayton Sherrouse, the Augusta Canal Authority’s executive director.
Heritage areas were created to use federal resources as leverage to preserve and improve significant areas by stimulating involvement from local and state agencies.
In the 16 years since the canal heritage area was designated, it has received $5.8 million from the park service – though the legislation allows up to $1 million each year, with a long-term total limit of $15 million.
“This fiscal year, we received $308,000 and the previous year it was $316,000,” Sherrouse said. “So over the years we’ve received, roughly, a little over a third of the authorized funding, which is one of the reasons we feel justified in getting an extension.”
Efforts to get the funding extended are under way on several fronts, including a National Heritage Area Caucus that includes 37 members of Congress – 23 Democrats and 14 Republicans – who are supporting legislation to extend the funding four more years.
“The general thinking is, it will be easier to deal with a group than one or two situations at a time,” Sherrouse said, and Senate offices in affected states are also being asked for support.
In Georgia, U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss are working to find solutions, officials in their offices said Friday.
On the House side, U.S. Rep. John Barrow is becoming a member of the caucus and has asked to be a co-sponsor of the House bill to extend the funding, said his press secretary, Peyton Bell. U.S. Rep. Paul Broun is not a member, said his spokeswoman, Jessica Hayes.
The canal heritage area has performed well in its mission to use federal dollars as leverage, according to a draft of an evaluation conducted in 2011 for the National Park Service by the Center for Park Management in Washington.
Audited expenditures found the Canal Authority has spent $26.4 million since 1998 on direct support to the heritage area and its programs, with only 19 percent from National Park Service funds.
“For us, the money from the Park Service is not our primary source, which makes us different from some of the other areas,” Sherrouse said, noting that about 58 percent of the annual budget is covered from hydropower revenues and 14 percent from boat tours, admissions fees and gift shop sales. Individual grants and other sources also have brought in funding for canal projects.
Since the heritage area was designated in 1996, the canal authority’s scope of activities has grown significantly.
In addition to managing its museum and interpretive center at Enterprise Mill, it operates Petersburg tourboats and has worked with Augusta and Columbia County to add trails, bridges, canoe and kayak launch sites and other features. It has also purchased the Sibley and King textile mills in Augusta for historic preservation purposes.