HANFORD - Despite all the spats and last-ditch pleas from devoted community members, time has run out for Fort Roosevelt.
The Hanford Elementary School District's contractor, Kroeker Inc., began demolition work Thursday on the wildlife refuge which has sat behind Roosevelt Elementary School for more than 40 years.
The HESD board voted last week to go ahead with the demolition, which had been postponed from July. The leveling work is expected to be complete before school starts again on Jan. 9.
“There are three things that people came to Hanford for: the Imperial Dynasty, Fort Roosevelt and Superior Dairy,” said Larry Hotz, as he took one last look at the Fort Thursday. “The saddest part of the whole thing is two of those landmarks have gone away this month. That just shows me that our community is not doing what it can to preserve its heritage.”
The Imperial Dynasty has announced it will close in early 2006.
Hotz is a member of the Fort Roosevelt Community Committee, which has advocated for finding some way to keep the legacy of the now-defunct nature learning center and museum.
The district closed the fort in October 2004 after it deemed the time-worn landmark too dangerous for children, pointing to the rickety poles that make up the ragged-looking trademark wall surrounding the fort.
At first the closure was called temporary, but the board ended up closing the fort for good and called for its demolition with little public input, a fact that outraged those who regarded Fort Roosevelt as a point of local heritage and pride.
HESD Superintendent Rebecca Presley maintains that the closure and demolition were inevitable.
“This is really sad for anyone who remembers the fort,” she said. “But there was a problem, and the responsible thing the district board had to do is to make it safe.”
Presley has also said the fort site was landlocked and gave no room for growth, making it difficult to save it in the long run.
Now the Fort Roosevelt issue has attracted the notice of the Kings County grand jury. Hotz said he has been interviewed twice by grand jury members.
Presley said the fort's legacy will live on at Burris Park, where the district is developing another outdoor classroom. The Burris Park plan drew criticism as some questioned reports of radioactive material residues in soil at the park.
But results of repeated studies by the county rejected those concerns.
Others, like Hotz, have argued Burris Park is too far from the city to attract visitors to downtown like Fort Roosevelt used to.
Presley and board members still called for the closure but relented after Hotz's group asked for more time to craft a proposal.
The committee was never able to capture a level of community interest strong enough to raise funds for preservation of the fort. It also quickly learned a salvaging effort would be too costly, with no guarantee of success.
Today the committee is working toward a new goal. The hope is to achieve nonprofit status, move the old train depot at the fort to a spot near its original downtown location and develop another nature center nearby, Hotz said.
The fate of the train depot is uncertain, but the city has indicated some interest in acquiring it, according to school officials.
Hotz said he has not heard from the city.
Presley said, “We're not going to touch it until we have a home for it.”
Hotz said the committee understands the school district's position and agrees that preservation was not feasible.
“Unfortunately, for a lot of people in the district, this was what they wanted and this was ultimately what they got,” Hotz said. “We as a community looked at it real hard and looked at every way possible to preserve the fort. Unfortunately, from a business perspective, it doesn't make sense to stay here. On the safety standpoint, something had to be done.”
Hotz does have a problem with the way the district handled the fort over the years.
“We have to do what's best for the community and the safety of kids,” Hotz said. “In that respect, I can't fault the district for what they are doing. The way they are doing it - a different story.”
On Thursday, David Dibble, a Hanford native who is now a filmmaker in Southern California, spent hours quietly holding a video camera, capturing the demolition from afar amid the ceaseless roars of backhoes.
Dibble has strongly protested the fort closure. He has made it a mission to save the fort's memory in the form of a documentary.
Dibble is also critical of the district.
“It's almost baffling that (the district owns) it, but they try to blame other people for not taking care of it,” Dibble said.
Hotz said when he first began having conversations with the district, it was apparent some board members did not even know the fort was district property.
“Ms. Presley has been the superintendent for eight years now, and she is the former principal of the school,” Hotz said. “If anybody should've known what needed to be done, it should be Ms. Presley.”
The fort could have been saved if the district was more forthcoming about its condition, Hotz said.
“I have no doubt in my mind the community would have fixed this had the district been willing to allow that,” Hotz said.
Presley has defended herself against such criticism by saying the fort - although owned by the district - has been out of the district's jurisdiction since 1983, when by mutual agreement, the previous superintendent relinquished the authority over the fort to an advisory committee.
The seriousness of the safety hazards only came to the district's attention in August 2004 when an architect who happened to be on the school premises reported safety concerns, Presley said.
Plans now call for using the frontage of the fort for a bus turning area for the special education classrooms, according to Presley.
Nine trees at the rear of the fort site will be preserved, and the area will be also landscaped and dedicated in memory of the fort, Presley said. The district will welcome any input from the community into the design of the footprint, she said.
(The reporter may be reached at email@example.com.)
(Dec. 23, 2005)