SONOMA COUNTY – Staff overseeing the Fort Ross State Historic Park on Sonoma County’s northern coast are busy preparing for the “Fort Ross Bicentennial Weekend” at the end of this month, the highlight of a year-long celebration made possible in part by a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership between the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the international Russian conglomerate, Renova.
The park, which features a fort built by Russian settlers 200 years ago, was among dozens in the state that faced closure in the ongoing budget crisis. Yet today, after approximately $1.7 million in support from the Renova Fort Ross Foundation and a swelling of support from other organizations, the park has become a major draw for locals and the Russian community in the United States and abroad.
In the final weeks leading to the weekend, Sarah Sweedler, president and CEO of the nonprofit Fort Ross Conservancy that oversees the park, said she has seen a crescendo of interest in the past decade, recently fielding an inquiry about the event from the mayor of the northeast Russian city of Yakutsk.
“Thousands of people from Russia, from the wider Soviet Union, and of course their descendants come to Fort Ross to connect with a piece of their past – the architecture, the sights and the smells,” she said.
In partnership with the Russian Ministry of Culture, the Renova foundation will be supporting the travel of 50 members of the Russia-based Pyatnitsky Russian Folk Choir, which will perform at Fort Ross during the weekend, said Olga Miller, director of the New York City-based foundation.
Cultural initiatives are a priority for Renova in the United States, along with support of Russian and American business interests, she said. The idea of supporting Fort Ross began in 2009 at the request of Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and the historic site has since become a focus during the foundation’s cultural events held throughout the county.
That growing awareness has extended to Russia as well, Ms. Miller said.
“It’s quite unusual to hear people in Russia and Siberia talking about Fort Ross, and some people in Sonoma County don’t know about it,” Ms. Miller said.
When constructed, Fort Ross served as a multicultural trading hub for Native Americans, Spaniards and Mexicans. The site was the southernmost settlement for Russians on the American continent, and served as an agricultural center to supply other settlements to the north.
“The first grapes that were ever grown in California were grown at Fort Ross,” she said.
In recent years, the historic park, which features the oldest in-place building between California and Alaska, was among other parks facing what Ms. Sweedler called a “mind-boggling” backlog of deferred maintenance. With more requests from the state the cover repairs, the conservancy has sought public/private partnerships to help preserve the site. Other significant contributions have come from Chevron and its Russian partners Transneft and Sovcomflot.
The Renova Fort Ross Foundation funded a new roof for the “Rotchev House,” a national historic landmark, and other improvements. However, Ms. Sweedler noted that more work was required to maintain the site.
“We are not getting ahead of the curve by any means – we need to create a new operational model to support this park,” she said.
The foundation will be holding a fundraiser gala at San Francisco City Hall in October, corresponding with Fort Ross’s harvest festival on Oct. 20. The high-profile event will help to raise money and awareness for the park, with the hope of developing a self-sufficient financial model for Fort Ross.
The Bicentennial Weekend is held July 28-29, featuring a number of cultural performances and foods. Parking is $35 per day, with small buses charged $150 and large buses $350. Other events are held throughout the year, and more information is available at www.fortross.org.
This article has been corrected to reflect the goal of the October gala and the cost to park at the event.
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