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Value of Reagan's Old Home Disputed

U.S. offers far less than owner wants. Debate could jeopardize historic status of site where ex-president spent boyhood.

January 12, 2003|Dennis Conrad | Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — Nearly a year after President Bush signed a bill intended to make Ronald Reagan's boyhood home in Dixon, Ill., a national historic site, a dispute over what the home is worth may keep it from achieving that status.

Private appraisals contracted by the U.S. Interior Department put the fair market value of the real and personal property at $420,000.

This is millions of dollars below what the private Ronald Reagan Boyhood Foundation that now owns and runs the home argues is the true value.

"It should be somewhere between $3 million and $5 million," Norman Wymbs, the foundation's chairman, said Friday. He said he found the $420,000 figure insulting.

Wymbs said that the next time the foundation's executive committee and board meet, probably in February, he is confident that they will reject the government's offer, received shortly before Christmas.

"I know they will," he said in a phone interview from his Florida home. "No question about it."

Since acquiring the home in 1980 for $29,000 shortly before Reagan was sworn in as the nation's 40th president, the foundation has spent more than $10 million on the home and surrounding area, including more than $5 million for the part that is now desired by Interior, according to Wymbs.

Wymbs' own family foundation provided much of the money.

The property under consideration as a national historic site includes Reagan's home, a nearby visitors center and a bigger-than-life bronze statue of the former president in a tiny park.

Legislation sponsored by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, whose district includes the boyhood home of his fellow Republican, Reagan, authorized the Department of Interior to acquire the home with donated or appropriated funds at fair market value and from a willing owner only. The Congressional Budget Office had estimated the acquisition cost at $400,000, even while Wymbs had warned that it should be millions more.

The legislation also calls for Interior, through the National Park Service, to enter into a cooperative agreement with the foundation for operation of the home and then consult with the foundation on a general management plan by 2004.

"This is a difficult situation," said Al Hutchings, associate regional director for professional services for the National Park Service's Midwest region. "This home would be a fine addition to the National Park Service but, by law, we're required to offer the appraised value and no more."

Wymbs said another concern that the foundation has is the future role of volunteers who work at the site.

"This is a matter of civic pride to the people of Dixon. Some of the volunteers we have were there 20 years ago," he said. "I will not do anything that will jeopardize the jobs of these volunteers."

Hutchings said federal officials would be willing to negotiate details about the role of the volunteers before a purchase agreement is reached.

Hastert spokesman Brad Hahn said Friday: "This is an important project for Reagan's legacy and the community of Dixon, but the Department of Interior has a very specific process they have to follow, and we understand that as well."

Not included in the federal government's plans for a national historic site is the Dixon Historic Center, which is near the Reagan home and which honors former area residents, including Reagan, who is a former governor of California.

The Ronald Reagan Boyhood Foundation plans to improve the historic center with some of the funds that it would get for sale of the home.

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