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Bona fide Deal or Bailout? Should the NPS Acquire Grant's Farm near St. Louis?


Visitors to Grant's Farm can get up close and personal with some unusual animals. Photo by schmich via Creative Commons and flickr.

Old McDonald had his farm, but Grant's Farm, owned by the Busch family of brewing fame, puts him to shame. Their place near St. Louis is home to some 100 species of animals, including zebras, elephants and farm animals, and it's recently been studied as a possible addition to the National Park System. Is this a bona fide prospect for the NPS—or another potential bailout of a popular but underfunded private attraction?

The farm, which now covers about 273 acres, was part of a larger tract once owned by Ulysses S. Grant. It was purchased in 1903 by the Busch family, which developed some impressive structures on the property, including a 3-story mansion with 26 rooms and 14 bathrooms nicknamed the Big House. A family trust now leases the property to Anheuser-Busch and it currently draws about 500,000 visitors a year. The facility described in some documents as a "wildlife preserve and zoo" clearly offers plenty of activities for family fun.

The question is whether that popularity—and the site's ties with both a former president and a prominent family that built a brewing empire—qualify it to become a unit of the National Park System?

The agency is in the early stages of answering that question and has recently completed a Preliminary Boundary Adjustment Evaluation and Reconnaissance Study to help determine if the property meets the criteria for an NPS site.

The prospect of bringing the area under NPS management via a boundary adjustment of an existing park rather than designation of a new NPS unit is possible because Grants Farm is adjacent to the existing Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. The recently completed study is the first step in evaluating the idea.

So, what's at Grant's Farm and what do current visitors experience?

Grant's Farm currently houses more than 900 animals representing more than 100 different species, including elephants, zebras, camels and parrots. Perhaps the most famous attractions on the property are some horses: the Budweiser Clydesdale Stables is home to about two dozen of the animals, including mares, geldings, stallions and foals.

For history buffs, the site also includes the restored cabin Ulysses S. Grant built elsewhere on the property in 1855, although he actually occupied it for only a short period. Other cultural resources identified in the recent report include "Busch family estate features: the French Revival style mansion known as the 'Big House,' the 'Bauernhof' farm and service complex, and other historic buildings, landscapes, and landscape features associated with the Busch family

Given the site's popularity with the public and the long connection with the Busch family, what's prompting discussions of a possible change in ownership?

According to local media reports, “The desire is to have long-term preservation and public access to the farm,” said Frank Hamsher, a spokesman for the Busch family. “We are simply looking at what are the best options for long-term preservation of the property.”

Those same reports also note the farm loses about $3.5 million to $4 million a year, and it's unknown if those figures include the expenses to maintain the family mansion located on the property. Perhaps those costs are a factor in the family's consideration of a sale or transfer of the Farm.

The 2008 acquisition of Anheuser-Busch by the overseas corporation InBev has also raised some questions about the future of the farm; there were media reports last week that the new Busch management is considering the sale of another Busch enterprise, the Kingsmill Resort & Spa in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Financial issues could certainly present a major hurdle for NPS acquisition of the entire property as it's now being operated.

The current operation doesn't charge an admission fee, but it does collect mandatory parking fees ($11 per car) and raises additional revenue from food and beverage sales, gift shops and special functions. Parts of the facility can be rented for private events, ranging from birthday parties ($200 and up for 10 guests) to larger affairs ($4,000 for four hours for up to 700 guests.)

Guests can also book a $200 "private expedition" for up to 12 people, which includes "a ride in an open air vehicle through the Deer Park with up close feeding experience with animals and fish," a visit to the Clydesdale stables, parking passes and other benefits. Such revenue would not likely be available under NPS ownership, so the actual cost for the agency to operate the facility in its current mode would be significant.

The question of finances will likely play a big role in the current discussions about a possible NPS role. "Grant's Farm has been a great asset to the community for generations,” said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “As with everything right now, we need to keep our country’s current financial situation in mind, so I would be most interested in exploring options that would not add to our country's deficit."

The potential costs for an agency already short on cash should be given a close look, but perhaps the larger question is how the current operation would fit within the framework of the NPS. Would visitors expect the same types of activities currently offered under the Busch management? Here are just two examples:

(1) "Educational and entertaining animal shows" in the Tier Garten amphitheater offer "an up-close look at an amazing variety of animals, including kangaroos, tortoises, colorful birds and various other animals. Visitors can enjoy petting and hand-feeding some of the animals, including pygmy goats. The Elephant Education show and Animal Encounters show highlight the talents of elephants, parrots, mammals, and reptiles."

(2) Private birthday party packages offer more than just cake and ice cream; they include "10 goat feeding tickets" and "camel feeding for 10 children."

There's absolutely nothing wrong with such activities in a private setting such as Grant's Farm. A key question is whether they are appropriate for the NPS. If not, how would the established local constituency for the Farm react if these attractions were discontinued under NPS management?

While the desire of the Busch family to ensure the Farm continues to operate in the future is understandable, it would be an understatement to say many of the current activities aren't a good fit for the NPS. The recently completed NPS study seems to agree. Here's an excerpt from the study's conclusions:

Preliminary Boundary Adjustment Evaluation: The addition of portions of Grant’s Farm could add important Grant-related resources to Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. However, adding the entire Grant’s Farm property to the boundary of Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site would likely not be appropriate or feasible.

If a smaller parcel could be carved to encompass the Grant-related resources of Grant’s Cabin [and related sites]… the smaller section might comprise an eligible and feasible addition. A boundary assessment to consider the addition of a smaller area may be warranted.

Modification to the current configuration of Grant’s Farm may run counter to the Busch
family’s desires for long-term preservation of the estate. The family’s willingness to consider subdividing the property would be a major factor in evaluating the desirability of a boundary adjustment.

Reconnaissance Study: There is potential for the Anheuser-Busch and Busch family–related resources to be determined as nationally significant, but these would need to be evaluated more thoroughly before a definitive statement is made. The suitability criteria likely would be met in a full study, if the resources are deemed compatible with the NPS mission and policies. It seems unlikely, however, that the feasibility criteria would be met in any future study. Costs of acquisition and management of the structures, collections, and maintained landscapes would likely be infeasible for the NPS.

What do you think about a future NPS role at Grant's Farm? Are there some worthwhile options, or would this be just another bailout of a underfunded private site? You can download and read a copy of the full study document at this link.

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My mental image of Ulysses S. Grant is not connected with farming, so the significance of this site for the commemoration of the president seems to be pretty weak. The Busch family is about brewing, not about a zoo. The Barnums might justify a zoo, but not the Buschs. From the information in this article I can't see any national significance of this property and don't think it is an appropriate part of the national park system.

Maybe the NPS could buy the restored cabin and set it up on the existing part of the National Historic Site.

Yes, I definitely agree that the park service shouldn't be running a zoo. In fact, St. Louis has a zoo, which, very similarly, is free but charges a hefty parking fee and will get you with food and gift shops. Maybe this could be a "satellite" zoo and transferred to the city.

But why haven't they considered raising rates or charging admission? Seems ironic that there is a relative trickle of people to US Grant NHS, which is free, but a huge line for Grant's Farm which is literally adjacent to the historic site.

Grant's Farm does not meet the criteria for inclusion in any national park plans. It would also be an unacceptable drain on taxpayers. The family obviously wants the NPS, and taxpayers, to bail them out. To their credit though, it does sound like a nice family place to visit, so I would like it to be kept running. I suggest that instead of trying to foist this on the taxpayers, the Busch family should try to find an organization or company with zoo experience to buy or lease the place. As an alternative, perhaps a citizens group, or a corporation or group of corporations could acquire the place, and keep it running as a non-profit. Since the parking and concession fees, and the restaurant and gift shop income are not sufficient to cover all expenses, they would get a tax deduction for any money they put in to keep the place solvent.

I do hope this works out, but not on the taxpayer dime.--Savona, NY

What if they got rid of the animals and made the big house some kind of museum and make the whole park sort of a walking /bike riding thing, it's already got paved roads through the park (and it is right next to a great bike trail). Then tie the park park in with Ulyssess site across the street. I know the Busch's would have to give the site up for pretty much nothing but they can find a way to write it off.

I don't know if Grant's Farm is the type of attraction that merits NPS designation, but as to the Busch's being involved with zoos, don't forget Busch Gardens Tampa, which as been operating as a zoo since the late '50's. The family was very involved with Busch Gardens, especially in the early days. So to say that they are not zoo people is not quite correct.

Some 20 years ago the National Parks Conservation Association recommended part of the old Anheuser-Busch brewery in St Louis as a potential national historic site. That might be more appropriate and feasible, especially with corporate support. Agree in any event that the farm should not be added as is to the National Park System. Sounds like the proposed Wildlife Prairie Park proposal from years past.

No, definitely not. This not what most people associate with Ulysses S Grant.

As a St. Louis resident I can assure you that the Busch family is not in need of a bailout. They received billions when the company was sold to In-Bev. As the family seems to have lots of conflicts perhaps they see this as a way to keep the property in tact and as a public resource. Under the Busch family the company was as good a corporate partner as one could ever want. There is not a single public facility or cause that was not supported by the company and family individuals. After the take over, not so much! An operation as it now stands would not be in keeping with the NPS, however, put to a different operational plan I think it could greatly expand the existing and adjacent Whitethaven, the U. S Grant home and NPS historic site. The two are separated by a two lane road.

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