- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2011

Nearly a decade after Congress told the National Park Service to try to buy Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home, the plan remains in limbo — the victim of a budget dispute and of the former president’s own limited-government philosophy.

The Dixon, Ill., house is one of a number of places where the country’s 40th president lived when he called the small town on the Rock River, 100 miles from Chicago, his home from 1920 through 1933. But it’s the one that has been preserved for the past three decades by a nonprofit foundation as the official boyhood home, and it’s also the most likely candidate for the Park Service to incorporate.

Or it would be, if Reagan — whose 100th birthday Sunday will kick off a yearlong national commemoration of the nation’s 40th president — hadn’t preached a limited-government, free-market philosophy that his supporters say makes a government takeover unthinkable.

“I’m not in favor of the government owning property, never mind Reagan’s house. That’s like Southerners who want the federal government to buy up Civil War battlefields,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and founder of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project.

The Park Service preserves sites honoring nearly two dozen presidents, including Jimmy Carter, Herbert Hoover and William Howard Taft. It preserves four sites apiece for the Roosevelts — Theodore and Franklin. In December, it officially accepted the William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site into its holdings. But Reagan is unrepresented.

That is not to say the Park Service hasn’t tried.

Pushed by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Congress enacted a law in 2002 ordering the Park Service to buy the boyhood home in Dixon if the price was right and the owners were willing to sell. Mr. Hastert, whose Illinois district included Dixon, said he was working to put together a financing package.

The Congressional Budget Office and an outside appraisal put the value of the home at $400,000. The CBO said the overall purchase and setup of the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home National Historic Site would cost about $700,000 over two years.

The foundation, though, was looking for much more than the $30,000 or so that CBO officials said it paid in the early 1980s for the property. It was more in line with the millions of dollars that the budget office said had been invested in the home and surrounding property in the ensuing years.

“The price got way over what I could put together,” Mr. Hastert told The Washington Times.

Connie Lange, executive director of the home and the foundation’s only paid staffer, came on board in 2006. Shortly after the deal fell apart, she said, the foundation and the neighbors who had put their own efforts into restoring the home, began rethinking the desire to sell.

“They kind of put their heads together and all agreed they wanted to keep it the way it was,” she said. “It relates a lot back to Ronald Reagan’s way of thinking, and at least how we see it here — he didn’t think that government needed to be so big, he didn’t think government needed to be involved in our daily lives, and people really took that to heart here.”

Local news accounts say the last time Reagan visited while in office was in 1984, though he made a post-presidency trip in 1990.

To the thousands of Reagan fans and curious tourists who tour the home each year, it’s the place that shaped his values and character for showdowns with political foes in the U.S. and with leaders of what he dubbed the “evil empire” overseas.

The home will be shuttered Sunday for the centennial. Overseers typically celebrate Reagan’s birthday in Tampico, Ill., a half-hour drive up the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway (Interstate 88), where he was born.

The annual visitor season for the Dixon home lasts from April 1 through mid-November. Last year, Ms. Lange said, visitors came from 26 foreign countries and from every state except Vermont. She said website traffic suggests that Reagan remains highly popular in Poland and the Czech Republic.

“A lot of people from the Eastern European countries who fly into Chicago, if they’re going somewhere else here in the state, they’ll fly into Chicago, rent a car, drive the 12 miles out here, tour, go back to Chicago and then carry on their journey,” she said. “I think that’s a great tribute to Ronald Reagan.”

Mr. Hastert said he let the purchase plans drop after the foundation’s change of heart but is concerned about whether the foundation can sustain the home.

“Can they do that forever? That’s the question, and that’s why I had some interest in it in the first place,” Mr. Hastert said.

Ms. Lange said she has seen problems with government ownership when strained budgets forced Illinois to close some of its sites dedicated to former President Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of the Lincoln bicentennial celebration.

She said the foundation is aiming for sustainability. “We’re here, we accept responsibility. A lot of our efforts are focused on long-term viability,” she said.

The Park Service hasn’t committed to the property during the past decade and has asked Congress to authorize a study rather than seek a purchase deal.

Richard G. Ring, then the associate director for park operations, told lawmakers who were rushing the legislation through Congress that they were violating the rules that the GOP-controlled House and Senate had imposed on the Park Service just a few years earlier.

Those rules were designed to counter pressure to add questionable land to the government inventory, and to let the Park Service deal with its backlog of maintenance work for the properties already in its care.

But the law authorizing a purchase passed by voice vote in both chambers. Officials said the Park Service is still interested in acquiring the property but that no efforts have been made to negotiate a deal since 2002.

“We have authority to acquire it and we would like to acquire it if appropriations are there,” said Dwayne Prince, chief of the land resources division for the Park Service’s Midwest region.