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Virginia City, Montana

Restoring Virginia City: State making headway 
By Perry Backus of The Montana Standard

February, 2003 

Virginia City restoration work continues
Over the last five years, volunteers like this Elderhostel participant have worked alongside Montana Heritage Commission employees to shore up the nearly 250 historic buildings at Virginia and Nevada cities. Photo: Perry Backus 

Jeff Tiberi learned early on that each day in his job of overseeing operations at historic Virginia and Nevada cities could hold an unexpected challenge. 

It wasn't long after he'd taken the Montana Heritage Commission executive director's post in the spring of 1998, when a Virginia City resident walked up to him with a complaint. 

It seemed that trucks hauling cattle were driving through town, and as they roared around the sharp corner next the Opera House, a stream of manure slid onto the street. 

"He came up to me and asked, "Now what are you going to do about that?" Tiberi remembers. "You just never know what each day might bring." 

It's been six years since the Montana Legislature found a way to purchase nearly 250 historic buildings, 160 acres of land and what appears to be more than a million artifacts at Virginia and Nevada cities, and the daily management challenges continue. While Tiberi can easily point to the enormous efforts to shore up the place, he readily admits much remains to be done. 

"We've done a heck of a lot of work so far, but there's really no end in sight," he said. "I tell people it's a lot like making sausage. You really don't want to see the event. You want to look at the end product.'' 

Six years ago, many of the historic buildings purchased by the state were in varying degrees of disrepair. Water from leaky roofs damaged artifacts stored inside. Buildings were close to collapse. 

Since then, nearly 100 roofs have been replaced and some of the most significant buildings in the worst shape have been shored up. Those efforts include stabilizing the Kiskadden Barn, which was leaning precipitously. The barn is thought to have been a meeting place for the Vigilantes. 

But, the job facing the Montana Heritage Commission and Tiberi was much larger than just ensuring the historic buildings didn't fall over. 

The Legislature had man dated that the commission find a way to make the historic towns fiscally self-sufficient. Considering the state had no experience operating such a large tourist attraction and the tourist season at the two towns only lasts 100 days -- "if you're lucky" -- that task was daunting. 

In a recent report, Tiberi wrote that without major capital investments, such a modern motel or a gasoline station, meeting that goal of the site making enough money to pay for itself will be difficult. 

But, Virginia and Nevada cities continue to attract attention from people and corporations from across the country. Their help, combined with a growing revenue stream generated from the towns, could eventually reduce the burden on the state's coffers. 

"These towns contain nearly all aspects of the human condition. As such, we are able to touch many people," Tiberi said in his report. "Relationships with donors take much time and effort to develop. We have started down this path but have many miles to travel." 

"Continuation of state assistance under the current statute is imperative for the momentum to continue. The momentum sets an attractive stage for us to foster relationships with existing donors and to develop new relationships with prospective donors." 

Tiberi and the commission first had to prove to people they were up to the job. 

"We were the new kids on the block," said Tiberi. "It's hard to get businesses to commit until you can show that you're up to the task."

"We had to show the people of Montana and the Legislature that we were competent enough to run the site. That's been the greatest challenge for all of us."

Since the Montana Heritage Commission took over the management reins, revenues from the towns have increased an average of 21 percent a year. 

"If it were a publicly owned company, I'd be wishing I'd bought stock," said Tiberi. 

Over the same time period, Tiberi said the state's investment of $6.5 million may have tripled in value. The state has received nearly $3 million in donations of real and personal property as well as cash. The appraised replacement value of the buildings has been set at nearly $10 million. 

"We just have to figure out a way to convert some of that to cash," Tiberi said. 

The commission is exploring avenues to raise additional funding, including the potential of selling property, finding a university to sponsor a Virginia City Institute, reaching to potential corporate sponsors and continuing its search for grants. 

"We've looked under rock," said Tiberi. "We have to. We don't really have a choice."

The state owns residential properties scattered around Virginia City that don't play a role in telling the story of the historic towns. 

"It would be a win/win situation to sell some of those," said Tiberi. "We could use the cash on our other properties and it would put some property back on the tax roles of the city." 

The commission is also considering approaching Harvard University to see if it might be interested in expanding the Virginia City Institute. Tiberi said that idea came after the commission learned that Harvard owned gold dredges that operated between Virginia City and Alder. 

"They apparently made tens of millions of dollars," Tiberi said. "We helped their community and now we're planning on asking them to help ours."

The Virginia City Institute focuses on teaching historic restoration techniques. 

Tiberi said Harvard could help the institute expand its scope to attract students interested in learning about topics on the "human condition" that were so apparent during Alder Gulch's heyday. 

Students could explore topics like the miner's courts that were created in the early days of Virginia City, or the life of the Chinese who created their own community in the historic towns, and there were the prostitutes, supply routes and the banking that sprung up. 

"The topics are almost endless," said Tiberi. "We just need some help from someone with ties to Harvard.'' 

Grants play an increasing role in funding different projects. A grant from the Federal Emergency Management Administration will help pay for a hydrant and sprinkler system, as well drilling for a new well. 

Last year, the National Park Service awarded the commission a $780,000 Save America's Treasure's grant. 

"There is a lot of appeal to this project," said Tiberi. "We touch all aspects of the human condition."

Plenty of challenges face Virginia and Nevada cities. 

"There's a tremendous amount of work left to be done," said Tiberi. "I could a work force of 100 people busy for 10 years."

Ironically, commission employees discovered a poster made in 1956 in a Virginia City building that reads, "This is a non-profit business. Unfortunately, we didn't plan it that way."

"Virginia and Nevada cities have been able to survive all these years in spite of an inability to make enough money to keep it going," said Tiberi. "It's as if there's some kind of magic out there that just keeps it going."

Copyright Perry Backus and the Montana Standard, reproduced by permission.

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