Triblive: by Mary Pickels

To the sound of a re-enactor's musket fire and shouts of “Huzzah!” on Friday, shovels broke ground at the site of a year-round Center for History Education at Fort Ligonier.

Phase one of a $13 million expansion and enhancement project, the center is expected to open in spring next year. It will provide over 5,000 square feet for programming, nearly 4,000 square feet of offices, and will have a space that can be configured into a 220-person theater or seat 110 in classrooms.

About 150 tourism site representatives, elected officials and business professionals attended the groundbreaking.

Annie Urban, Fort Ligonier executive director, said an expansion plan for the fort began four years ago.

“Goals that we established included improving the visitor traffic flow through the museum, accessibility, housing our amazing George Washington collection in one area to better tell the story of his early military career, re-interpreting the St. Clair Parlor, adding technology enhancements, and to bring to life the stories of the people of Fort Ligonier through our acclaimed archaeological collections,” Urban said.

To date, the “Fortifying Our Future” capital campaign has raised $5.8 million for the project.

The campaign includes $8 million for the history center, museum enhancements and fort restoration, as well as a $5 million endowment.

Director of Education Mary Manges said the center next to the French and Indian War Museum will permit expanded education programming, including teacher workshops, symposiums and lectures.

Manges said the museum hosts about 5,000 students who travel from 37 districts in nine counties each fall and spring for field trips.

“Pennsylvania's history continues to be a major draw for travelers,” said Carrie Fischer Lepore, deputy secretary of state Department of Community and Economic Development.

Calling Fort Ligonier an “iconic, historic asset,” Lepore said state research showed that 73 percent of visitors list learning about history among the benefits of Keystone state travel.

State Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant, said tourism translates into dollars for communities.

“As a policymaker ... something I'm always looking at is how do we get people here and how do we get them to spend money, right?” Reese said.

Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau President and CEO Renee Seifert said a 2014 Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor survey put Fort Ligonier at number three among the highway's top 30 attractions.

Of the $1.8 billion spent by visitors in the Laurel Highlands in 2013, $742 million was spent in Westmoreland County, with historic attractions ranking high on visitors' lists, she said.

“It is important for Fort Ligonier to be here for generations to come,” Seifert said.

The Washington Gallery will be created inside the 50-year-old museum, along with a research library expected to attract scholars from around the world. The museum store will be redesigned.

Additional plans include repairs to the 256-year-old British fort's buildings, carts and cannons, replacement of the East Bastion and interpretive signage, with completions planned for fall 2017.

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