Presidential candidate John McCain has made a big deal about government earmarks, those little bits of local color stuck onto federal funding bills. Tourist attractions are only a tiny percentage of the earmarking going on in the US -- well under $100 million out of $18 billion -- but we decided to see which ones looked like good investments. Poking into the huge earmark database run by Citizens Against Government Waste, we found around 250 projects that you might actually want to visit -- and why not, because you helped pay for them! Here's our entirely arbitrary list of 5 federally-funded sites not to visit followed by our top 5 places you might actually want to go.
Part One: I Paid For That?
A walking tour of Boydton, VA ($98,000) About two hours south of Richmond, Boydton is an antebellum speck about four blocks on a side, with several prominent eighteenth-century buildings and an extremely aggressive little local historic preservation movement. It certainly looks like a lovely place to walk around, though it also looks like that would take about fifteen minutes total, so we're not sure why we need a $100,000 walking tour. Now if that money went into preserving those historic buildings, it might not seem so silly. Website: www.virginia.org
The Mother's Day Shrine in Grafton, WV ($123,050) What gets us about this one is the use of the word "shrine." Shrine? Is Mother's Day really a religion? It must be, because this building is a former Methodist church turned into a local organization "dedicated to the preservation of Motherhood." While this is a noble cause -- after all, if we lose motherhood, that's the extinction of the human race -- after reading the site's Web site we can't really figure out what it does other than function as an extremely oversold local community center. Website: www.mothersdayshrine.com
The Woodbridge Historical Society in Woodbridge, NJ ($49,000) Woodbridge, NJ has a distinguished history; it was incorporated in 1664, George Washington slept there, etcetera, etcetera. The problem is that today, Woodbridge is the opposite of a tourist attraction: a collection of dull suburbs and ugly industrial areas, crisscrossed by major railroads and highways. With a major train junction, maximum-security state prison, corporate office park and industrial port, Woodbridge has a thriving economy and many jobs. It might be a nice place to work, but you just don't want to visit there.
The Hunting and Fishing Museum of Tionesta, PA ($196,000) This feels a little like kicking a town when it's down, but here we go: Kick. Tionesta is in a beautifully forested region of northwestern Pennsylvania that's popular with hunters, but has lost other major job-providers recently (well, at least according to Wikipedia). The solution: build a multi-million-dollar museum to celebrate the area's hunting and fishing heritage. Thing is, most hunters and fishermen I know would prefer to hunt and fish than to go to a museum about hunting and fishing. By all means head up there with a rod-- the trout are running like mad -- but we're not feeling the need for a $10 million exhibit on the topic. Website: www.huntfishmuseum.org
DeSeversky Center Building in Old Westbury, NY ($147,660) This gracious, former mansion is now a private event space for private functions owned by the private New York Institute of Technology. Yes, it's open to the public for lunch and dinner "several nights a month," but mostly it's closed to everyone who doesn't plunk down big bucks to hold a glamorous wedding reception or business meeting there. So cross it off your tourist list, if it was ever on there: this is one recipient of public funds that you probably won't be able to visit.
Part Two: Attractions Worth Your Tax Dollar
Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, IL ($146,000) Federal earmarkers love aquariums, but that's OK; we do, too. We found the Monterey Bay aquarium, the Charleston SC aquarium and this one on our earmarks list. We're picking the Shedd because it's such a great aquarium -- one of the world's largest, it even has indoor whales. Whales! Indoors! That takes a lot of money to keep up, so Shedd's public money is supplemented by an unfortunately high ticket price. It's still worth it.
Chimney Rock Pueblo, Pagosa Springs, CO ($241,178) American history didn't start in 1776 (or even 1526.) More than 1,000 years ago the Anasazi culture flourished in the West, complete with apartment buildings, a road network, and extensive irrigation. Outside Pagosa Springs, CO is a major archaeological site with the ruins of an Anasazi great house and dozens of other buildings, managed by federal staff on federal parkland. It's extremely remote -- hours from the nearest major city -- but definitely worth a stop if you're roaming the Four Corners area. Website: www.chimneyrockco.org
Goldfield, NV ($295,320) A classic Western ghost town, Goldfield, NV is a lot less tourist-trappy than the similarly named Goldfield, AZ. At one point, this was the largest town in Nevada; now it's a spooky, atmospheric and largely depopulated place with a notoriously-haunted hotel that's finally trying to attract some tourist business. Goldfield is on your way if you're driving between Las Vegas and either Yosemite or San Francisco. Website: goldfield.travelnevada.com
U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL ($470,000). One of our favorite experiences in all of Alabama, the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center is a grand celebration of the dream of space flight, according to our guidebook authors. "You get to see big rockets like Saturn V and Apollo 16's command module, among other cool celestial equipment. There are also rides for the kids, a nifty simulated trip to Mars, and the Spacedrome IMAX theater." And Federal money makes extra sense here -- this is a celebration of a federal program: NASA.
Bishop Museum, Honolulu, HI ($243,000) If you're in Honolulu, the Bishop Museum is a must-see, according to our guidebook authors. "Not only does this multibuilding museum have the world's greatest collection of natural and cultural artifacts from Hawaii and the Pacific, but recently it has added a terrific new 16,500-square-foot Richard T. Mamiya Science Adventure Center, specializing in volcanology, oceanography, and biodiversity." The main hall is currently undergoing a massive renovation to update its 19th-century look with high-tech, 21st-century exhibits using money from the state and private donors.