Protecting Our History—and Growing Our Economy—in Orange County, Virginia

A bluebird on a canon at Wilderness Battlefield.

A bluebird on a canon at Wilderness Battlefield. Photo © Nick Lund/NPCA.

Too often, efforts to protect historical sites end up pitting preservationists against landowners and developers, resulting in wasted time, wasted money, and hard feelings all around.

But what if we turned this equation around? What if we started with the answer we wanted—a strong community with a vibrant economy and a beautiful national park—then worked together to attain it?

In Orange County, Virginia, citizens, elected officials, businesspeople, and preservationists are doing just that. Only a few years back, Walmart proposed building a 138,000-square-foot superstore on a hallowed Civil War site adjacent to the Wilderness Battlefield at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. After three years of opposition, Walmart decided to relocate their store to another site in Orange County. Hard feelings and divisions remained—one local newspaper even called it the “Second Battle of Wilderness.” The story could have ended there. Instead, a group of stakeholders known as the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition worked with the community to identify options for the county to grow economically without putting a big box retailer in the middle of its rich Civil War history.

The Wilderness Battlefield Coalition is an alliance of national, regional, state, and local organizations interested in preserving the historic Wilderness Battlefield. Reaching out to Orange County’s landowners, the business community, and the National Park Service, the coalition proposed embarking on a “gateway study.” Communities located adjacent to natural and historic sites are known as gateway communities; a goal of the gateway study was to find a way to bring more jobs and shopping opportunities to the area, but in a way that let visitors immediately recognize that they were in a historic community. The study sought answers to these questions:

  • What is our vision for the future of our community?
  • What assets and stumbling blocks exist now?
  • What is the roadmap that will create the community we want to live in?

A gateway study takes time and money and hard work. A team of experts conducts research. Affected parties had a chance to weigh in with ideas, desires, and concerns. Over a year in the making, the result is a series of options for Orange County residents to consider as they proactively plan their future.

In Orange County, preservationists could simply have touted it as a win when Walmart retreated from the Civil War site. Instead they worked with the community to identify future development alternatives that would include smart ways to build the local economy. The study found that protecting the local battlefields and improving the visitor resources that draw people to the region were important ways to achieve both preservation and economic development goals—at the same time! As development pressures continue to crowd our natural areas, we can use this new model of collaboration to proactively build our best future.

Learn more about the study and download the full report at http://www.npca.org/wildernessgateway.

You can also check out NPCA’s November 2010 report, “Making Connections: Linking Outdoor Recreation, Open Space & History at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and Nearby Communities.” This report reviews the growing recreational demand in the region, outlines businesses already developing to address this growing demand, and makes recommendations for future actions.

About the Author

Pam Goddard is Chesapeake and Virginia program manager for NPCA's Mid-Atlantic Regional Office

  • James Harrell Jr

    They should preserve the battlefields and the land around it as well. We have developers who would love to destroy Stones River Battlefield in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. They have already destroyed enough around obviously probably wiping out artifacts and who knows what else with what they already have done. We already have more than enough stores and houses in this town. The battlefield is one of the few things of history left here. Everything else is gone.