January 23 – For more than 30 years, a Salute to Independence with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra at Antietam National Battlefield was a poignant experience for a whole lot of people in the area.
Because of COVID and a construction project on the grounds, the event hasn’t happened at the battlefield since 2019. Organizers were excited to bring this well-attended event back this year, but leadership at the battlefield park has said no.
The event brings more than 15,000 people to the area as well as thousands of tourism dollars.
Paul Frey, president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce said, “Now COVID is mostly gone and the Visitor’s Center is finished. Now we want to go back, but the park service is resisting that. The disappointing news is they weren’t even talking with us about. They’ve already made the decision.”
A Facebook page and petition has begun to try to Save the Salute to Independence.
Jim Kercheval, executive director of the Greater Hagerstown Committee, said, “People are talking about what their families enjoyed and how that was one of the best patriotic celebrations that they’ve attended. We offered to meet with the park leadership to see if there were some barriers that they had, what were the reasons, let’s see if we could break them down together.”
The reasons were actually more about public safety issues.
Kercheval said, “We were basically told the decision was made they weren’t going to have it. The reasons were a lot of what if scenarios. What if a big storm came through and people don’t want to move or vacate like they should when they’re told to go to their cars and shelter? What if there was some sort of bad person that shows up and does a bad event? What if one of the firework shells catches something on fire? We certainly don’t want to diminish public safety or those things, but we have a lot of what we thought were responsible answers to that to say well those are all workable.”
Indeed, if every organization based decisions on those scenarios, what would we have left?
Kercheval said, “The public and families have the responsibility to recognize risk wherever they go and that can happen anywhere. That’s why we get up every day and choose to drive a car. We could stay home and never be in a car wreck.”
Michele Jansen of NewsTalk 103.7FM pointed out, “It’s always risk versus benefit and also they’re breaking a cardinal rule that seems to have taken over government in every other way. That’s stakeholder involvement. I thought that’s supposed to be a big deal right now? They always consult stakeholders before you make decisions like this.”
Kercheval said, “We were kind of surprised at the meeting because we thought we were there to hear about problems and I did a lot of homework, but we were basically told that that decision was made and we’re not going back. We mentioned at that time as a community, this is a huge event for us. We’re not just willing to sit down and let that go.”
There was no explanation given for the lack of communication with event organizers.
Kercheval said, “We were caught off guard that the minds were already closed to have a discussion.”
Because of the planning that needs to take place for an event of this size, event organizers needed a decision by the end of 2022 and the initial letter went out in September.
Jansen said, “It seems like COVID’s being used as an excuse to stop a lot of things and this is actually a trend that we’re hearing about in other national parks as well. Oh, we didn’t do something for the last two years, we’re just going to drop it. Without a lot of explanation or it seems like without a lot of research into the cost versus benefit of making that decision.”
Kercheval pointed out, “The benefit from a tourism aspect is tremendous. To have a decision like that and not have other consultation was surprising, but when you look at the National Park Service mission which is to safely protect the culture and natural resources for the education, enjoyment and inspiration of this generation as well as future generations, I don’t see where it matches up.”
Doug Dobbs, Civil War reenactor and retired Advanced Placement History Teacher at Broadfording Christian Academy, said, “The battlefield is a hugely critically historical spot and for the Fourth of July not to be celebrated there I think is a real disservice to the country, not just locally. This is a place that deserves to be commemorated, deserves to be understood and it’s an amazing place to celebrate the Fourth of July.”