One of the more fanciful ideas for Fort Ord is a year-round medieval village.
Thursday, November 4, 1999
From the street it looks like an average automotive repair shop in Salinas, or any other town. In fact, it looks that way at the front counter, too. There are a few repair parts (in and out of their boxes), a soda machine, and a few obligatory grease smears. The only thing that looks even slightly out of place is the model of a knight--mounted astride his charger, prancing through a pile of paperwork on the counter. But it''s not really very obvious; you might not even notice Sir Whatshisname if you''re in the shop worrying about your carburetor.
It''s not until you''re ushered into the inner sanctum--a room tucked off to one side, down a short hallway, under the stairs--that you get to the heart of what might be one of the more imaginative ideas for the reuse of Fort Ord.
There, in a tiny room cluttered with scraps of sheet metal, dissected swords, and half-finished armor is a homemade forge belching viscous clouds of smoke from smoldering green coal. The bit of metal that''s being heated in those coals and red-hot hammered into shape will one day be half of a basinet helmet. Right now it''s a very small piece of a dream.
If Tom Thiel has his way, a 300-acre parcel about a half-mile east of the old hospital will be turned into a year-round medieval village. In Thiel''s vision, when the gates to the village are opened, visitors will step back 500 years in time to England, circa 1470. Inside the town walls there will be 18 artisan/merchant buildings, a jousting arena, and three beverage/snack bars. While the village will be based on an English model, there will also be an area that represents what was going on in the rest of the world, with American, Asian and African displays.
For Thiel, a Salinas agriculture broker and president of the Center for Medieval Studies, a Salinas-based educational group, the village represents the expansion and culmination of a dream he''s been half-living for the last few years.
Despite the demands of his day job, Thiel and other members of the Medieval Studies group have been touring Monterey County schools demonstrating 15th-century life in full medieval costume. While one speaker is discussing medieval literature, for instance, Thiel dons a suit of full armor to talk about warfare and chivalry during the rest of the presentation. In 1998 alone, Thiel estimates, his group appeared before 4,000 students in 15-20 county schools.
"Last year we were so inundated with requests that we only did about a third of the schools," says Thiel. "We''re trying to raise money to have a full-time staff of three." Creating a medieval village would enable the group to honor all requests--and for Thiel to pursue his dream full-time.
But Thiel''s plan transcends individual gain. He sees a clear comparison between his village and the long-running Bay Area Renaissance Pleasure Faire.
In a prospectus being passed around by Thiel''s group, they point out that the 1998 Pleasure Faire attracted 250,000 visitors during the 14 days it was open in Novato. With tickets running $7.50 for children and $17.50 for adults, we''re talking serious box office receipts. Even if the total annual attendance at the Medieval Village equals that of the Ren Faire''s six-weekend run, and even if admission were lower--say around $12 a person--Thiel says it would still mean a considerable tax benefit to the county.
And, even though there isn''t a formal proposal on the table yet, there are others who see some lucrative possibilities. Ted Eastman is board chairman for the Monterey Bay chapter of the International Angel Investor Institute, a Silicon Valley-based group of about 1,500 investors. He has championed the project both to his investors and to the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.
"The plan needs some adjustment and attention, just as every industrial project does," says Eastman. "But it''s of interest and could be of economic value to Monterey County. We think there''s a good potential there."
While a medieval English village in Monterey County--a place with its own rich history--may seem odd to some, Thiel shrugs off the question.
"Everybody," he says, lightly grinning, "loves a knight in armor."