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National Park Service Looking for Fountain of Youth

  The National Park Service has a problem. Most of its visitors are middle-aged or older and white. So, earlier this month the agency launched a campaign to find ways to attract younger, more diverse visitors to its sites.

There are two such sites in metropolitan Baltimore, Fort McHenry—okay, that’s a gimme—and Hampton, an 18th century mansion off Dulaney Valley Road.

The estate’s grounds include beautifully crafted gardens and exotic trees. Yet it’s close enough to the Beltway that you can hear the traffic rumbling by on the other side of a tall concrete barrier. Still, hardly any of those motorists have plans to stop in.

“A lot of people from Baltimore City, Baltimore County, don’t even know this place is here,” says Vince Vaise, the mansion’s chief of Interpretation.

Vaise is one of the people trying to figure out how to attract more visitors to Hampton. And that means doing more than showing off a beautiful house with period furniture. Vaise says it’s telling the story, warts and all, of the Maryland family that lived there through six generations of American history.

“It’s telling the whole story,” Vaise says. “You know, if I’m an African American and I come to Hampton and all I hear is the furniture, I’m going to be like ‘that ain’t my park.’ If I come here and I learn the story of my ancestors, learn the story, ‘there are slave quarters here? Wow. My story is being told here.’”

The slave quarters at Hampton survived, in part because they were made of stone. Also, they were used by tenant farmers, white and black alike, after the Civil War.

But this push for more—and more diverse—visitors comes at the same time the park service, which celebrates its centennial next year, is suffering financially. The agency faces an $11 billion maintenance backlog, but has no money to do the work.

Anna Von Lunz, head of resource management at Hampton, says that over the last four years, the agency has spent between $4 million and $5 million on projects at the mansion, including a new visitor’s center that opened Friday. She says only a small fraction of that money came from the park service.

“It’s sort of cobbling together these different kinds of fund sources,” she said.

They got money from the federal economic stimulus package, foundation grants, individual donations and the state and Baltimore County.

Von Lunz says Hampton and Fort McHenry had to start sharing staff a few years ago because of budget cuts. So with money being tight, how do you reach out and snag a new generation of visitors?

Hampton plans to work with both the city and the county to get more school field trips. It also wants to have hands-on programs for children. Then there’s good old social media. Hampton could use more visitors like Erika Miller from Hampstead, who was taking advantage of a beautiful spring day to take some pictures of the site.

“I’m putting pictures on Facebook so one of my friends said oh, I used to go there all the time,” Miller says. “She’ll probably come too.”

But Miller is white, in her 60s, the typical park service visitor. Hampton and other sites want people like Miller coming back. But at the same time they want those first-time visitors taking pictures and posting them as well.