NEWPORT, R.I. -- Fresh off $2 million in construction work, Newport's Fort Adams is working to rebrand itself as a destination for adventure, with plans to weave in more hands-on activities, like geocaching and a zip line.
The fort is looking for ways to leverage the work that's been done to better use it as an economic development tool, said Richard Nagele, executive director of the Fort Adams Trust, which operates the fort for the state Department of Environmental Management.
"We're trying to build on what the state has invested in ... to broaden Newport's reach," he said.
The fort is best known as host to the Newport folk and jazz festivals. It sits on a spit of land that overlooks Narragansett Bay and Newport Harbor and boasts panoramic views of both. Construction on the fort began in 1824 and ended in 1857. It was occupied by the U.S. Army until 1950 and turned over to the state in 1965.
Since then, the fort's structure has deteriorated. Over the decades, roofs in some rooms have collapsed, walls have nearly fallen down and brush in some places took over. A state bond approved by voters in 2010 provided $1.7 million and the DEM kicked in $250,000 more to make repairs and other changes. They shored up the west wall, which was in danger of collapse, closed off windows and doors on the parade field, the green area that sits at the fort's center, so that people can't get into dangerous places, and cut down brush.
While it lacks the historical significance of more famous forts, such as Fort Ticonderoga in New York, Fort Adams is the largest and most complete coastal fortification in North America. It's also the one with the most complete outworks, the system of fortifications built outside the fort's main walls and used to slow down an enemy's advance. Fort Adams is so huge that its 6.5-acre parade field, the green area that sits at its center, could fit three better known forts inside it: Fort Ticonderoga, Fort Sumter in South Carolina and Fort Monroe in Virginia.
The Fort Adams Trust has provided tours of the fort for years, and it also rents out the space for weddings and other events, including this summer's America's Cup World Series.
Nagele said the trust is starting to think in different ways about the fort's mission. Officials know they can't tell moving stories of historical significance at a fort that never engaged in battle. But they can tell broader stories about the military, architecture and engineering, as well as offer activities that can connect people with those ideas.
"Instead of giving you a lecture and telling you how soldiers would move about the battlefield, (we'll) give you GPSs and let you walk around the battlefield itself," Nagele said. "We want to present programming that's more edgy education."
He hopes in particular to target families with boys, who might be particularly interested in using activities such as a zip line used to show people how soldiers train, or a hard hat tour that visits some of the more unusual elements, such as a urinal made of bricks and stone that stands in front of a gun port. In an area that once housed cannons that could be used to hold off a force attacking from the bay, Nagele envisions putting up an airsoft or Nerf rifle range so boys can play with replica guns in a safe and structured environment.
Nagele also plans to target specialty groups such as photography tours and company retreats with a team-building center that includes zip lines and a ropes course. Those kinds of groups are more lucrative because they tend to spend more money per person, he said.
The trust will start offering self-guided tours in September, which it previously could not offer due to the dangers the fort presented. It has already started activities such as Canine Cadets, where people can bring their dogs to frolic inside the walls of the fort while they enjoy a glass of wine. Zip lines are likely to be open in the spring, Nagele said. Each activity brings money into the fort's coffers, which helps the trust's goal of becoming self-sustaining and eventually making money for the state.
Sen. Jack Reed toured the fort this month and said the recent work makes it more clear what can be done with it.
"You see more and more the potential, not just as a historic site, but as an economic development engine," Reed said. "It makes quite a bit of sense."