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US Government Returns Land to New York - 2002-04-03

The U.S. government, after more than 200 years, has returned to New York State a prime piece of real estate, Governors Island, for a nominal fee of one dollar. The 70-hectare strip of land that sits in New York Harbor at the southern tip of Manhattan is rich with history.

Dutch settlers bought Governors Island in the 17th century from local Indians. It was a good deal. They paid for it with two ax-heads, some nails and a few beads. Today the real estate value of Governors Island is said to be between $300 million and $500 million.

The Dutch called it "Nutten Island," because of the elegant nut trees that dotted its landscape. Eventually it absorbed the name "Governors Island" when British colonial governors established residence there.

For almost 300 years it served as a military base, for the Dutch, the British and finally the Americans, until it was decommissioned in 1997.

New York State ceded the island to the federal government in 1800 at no cost. This week, President Bush decided to return the favor. "I looked at the law, looked at the circumstances and decided that this is the right thing to do for the U.S. government, it's the right thing for the people of New York," he says.

For New Yorkers, Governors Island is more than a trail through colonial and military history. Many famous figures left their footprints. Walt Disney was detained there for being AWOL absent without leave during World War I, U.S. boxer Rocky Graziano during World War II.

A rock on the west shore of Governor's Island marks the spot where President Ronald Reagan and French president Francois Mitterrand jointly pressed a remote control to re-light the Statue of Liberty in 1986 for a centennial observance. Two years later, President Reagan met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Governors Island, as momentous changes were simmering in post-war Europe.

The next decade, Governors Island was also the site of closely-guarded negotiations with Haitian military rulers to return Haiti to constitutional order following a coup.

No one or nothing much has passed through the historic island recently, except perhaps migratory birds.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki have agreed to dedicate the island to education and the training of teachers by re-locating parts of the City University. That would also relieve over-crowding in public schools.

Randi Weingarten, the head of the teachers' union, calls the plan promising. "There's a lot of details that have to be worked out," she says. "There's a lot of opportunity here, and we're just very excited to be a part of it." But there is a problem. It is money. It costs over $30 million a year to maintain Governor's Island, at a time when the city and state budgets are facing huge deficits.

Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had proposed building gambling casinos on the island, with some restaurants, and a hotel. That idea seems all but dead now. Gary Ackerman, a congressman from New York, says casinos would be inappropriate. But he thinks there is room for private enterprise. "I think there's enough acreage there to allow for whatever the educational needs are and, if necessary, I'm sure they can find one or two commercial type of things that would lend itself to Governors Island that could generate that kind of revenue," says Mr. Ackerman

However the politicians decide to maintain Governors Island, New Yorkers are very pleased the island once again belongs to them. It helps promote a sense of rebuilding and a new beginning that New York has been grasping for since September 11, and the loss of the World Trade Center.