PORTSMOUTH--Historic cemeteries in Portsmouth could soon be revitalized into tourist attractions under a new city plan.
The idea is to create a "Path of History." Adding benches, historic signage and water fountains would create park-like settings and hopefully attract visitors, organizers said.
For decades, several of Portsmouth's oldest cemeteries have been falling apart. The issue was spotlighted in 2008 when an 8-year-old boy discovered a human skull exposed at Mount Calvary cemetery.
The majority of these graveyards were privately owned and not well maintained. In response, the city took ownership of Cedar Grove, Oak Grove, Olive Branch, Mount Calvary, Paupers Field and Mount Olive cemeteries. In July 2014, the city also plans to acquire Fishers Hill cemetery.
A major cleanup effort is underway now to get the graveyards ready for the tourism market. City crews are working to repair historic graves, remove waste and add new fencing.
This summer, signs will be installed along with ten benches in each cemetery.
The city has hired a cemetery superintendent to run the new effort by filling an existing vacant position. The Sheriff's department has signed an agreement for weekly grass cutting and weeding. City officials are also working to develop partnerships with private groups to help improve cemetery conditions.
The city is saving $90,000 a year by having inmates perform yard work. The money saved will help pay for grave repairs, park benches and signs.
The project is expected to be complete in five years.
"This is a marathon, not a sprint," Director of General Services Dennis Bagley said. "We have a long way to go."
For 2014-2015, $280,000 is budgeted for cemetery maintenance, but city officials say that's not enough. It would cost about $500,000 to complete majority of the improvements.