LEWISTON, MAINE — "Qui perd sa langue," goes a Franco-American saying, "perd sa foi." Who loses his language, loses his faith.
The Franco-American Heritage Center here is determined not to lose either. The center is housed in a defunct Roman Catholic church that was once the core of this French-speaking mill town.
But as its linguistic subculture dwindles, the community has turned to the federal government for the kind of aid that's hard to translate into the local tongue: Qu'est-ce que ça veut dire, en français, "pork-barrel project"?
While lacking the fame or price of Alaska's infamous "bridges to nowhere," the $300,000 the center secured from Congress this year to restore its facade represents a small yet growing slice of the federal appropriations pie. Since 2001, "museum" projects – which include heritage centers, galleries, zoos, and halls of fame – have received 860 earmarks to the tune of $567 million, according to Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma.
Earmarks dedicate funds for pet projects that lawmakers add to spending bills. The heritage variety is "becoming bigger and bigger as mu- seums and tourism attractions look for alternative ways of being funded," says Ron Utt, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "They can present themselves as 'this is really education spending,' 'this is cultural spending,' 'this is spending on our heritage.' So the federal government becomes a substitute for [entry fees] or better publicity."
Local officials hope that renovating the center's splendid granite exterior will boost its tourist appeal – and help renew the community. "It's very important," says Rita Angers, standing on the center's steps that overlook what used to be Lewiston's working-class Little Canada neighborhood. The center is inside a gothic-style chapel that was once St. Mary's Church.
Ms. Angers remembers when the neighborhood used to walk through the snow to gather for Mass or work at the nearby Bates Mill. Social clubs like Le Passe-Temps, still active across the street, used to hold snowshoe races against out-of-town Quebecois.
When the Catholic Diocese of Portland vacated St. Mary's in 2000, community leaders rushed to transform the church into a cultural center to save it from the wrecking ball. Now, the city hopes to restore it as one of the preeminent symbols of French-speaking New England.
But even with its elegant interior and ornate stained-glass windows, the center seems to be more of a local community meeting place and performance hall than regional tourist mecca.
It's not for lack of trying. Promoters revived the building's historical charm at this weekend's Festival FrancoFun. No federal money was used for the party itself, but past earmarks enabled the concert series and banquets to be held inside the newly remodeled center, which boasts a set of inclined theater seats in the place of church pews.
"The mission of this center is to preserve the rich cultural traditions, language, and heritage of the Franco-Americans and to pass it on to the next generation so that it doesn't disappear," says Rita Dubé, the center's director. "We are doing a lot of educational things as well. There are a lot of services here that the community looks toward."
Among the services: French "reacquisition" classes for those who have forgotten their childhood language. According to census figures, 5.3 percent of Mainers speak French at home – more than in any other state.
In rural states like Maine, politics is mostly a friends-and-neighbors affair. Dubé says she has secured earmarks for the center – three in the past four years – by simply writing to Maine's representatives in Congress – a far cry from the image that all earmarks result from smoky, backroom deals between lobbyists and lawmakers.
Most earmarks are submitted anonymously, but Maine's two Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and Lewiston's representative in the House, Democrat Michael Michaud (who happens to be the first Franco-American Mainer to be elected to federal office), support the center's earmark.
None personally returned calls seeking comment.
"They've seen the place and they know what its value is," says Dubé. "It's a magnificent structure and a true asset to the whole state. Everyone wants to preserve it."
But should a small, local project like the Franco-American Heritage Center get an earmark? The debate may be more about setting precedents than saving buildings.
Like many museum and cultural center earmarks, the Franco-American Heritage Center's funding is administered by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as one of 1,177 Economic Development Initiative Special Purpose grants and Neighborhood Initiative grants. These appropriations "add-ons" are noncompetitive and totaled $356 million in fiscal year 2006.
"At some point, citizens have to learn to distinguish between what a federal project and a local project is," says Annie Patnaude, press secretary for the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a Washington group that promotes limited government. Earmarks, she says, "are not categorically bad. It's easier to go through your lawmaker to earmark than to apply for a federal grant. In our view, [applying for a federal grant is] a legitimate process."
The problem with earmarks, even small ones, says Ms. Patnaude, is that they undermine the existing competitive grant process with a system based on influence.
In her travels with the Prosperity Foundation's "Ending Earmarks Express" road tour, Patnaude says she's smelled a lot of bacon. She's visited the Sparta Teapot Museum in Sparta, N.C. ($500,000 in 2006), the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tenn. ($100,000 in 2004), and the Wheels Museum in Albuquerque, N.M. ($525,000 in 2006).
"Most of the earmarks are what I'd call location-specific," says Mr. Utt of Heritage. "We're not spending money to support modern art. We're spending money to support modern art at a museum in Cleveland."
Government officials, however, say the center's earmark will provide benefits beyond Lewiston. "This is not a local goal," says Michael Aube, Maine state director for rural development at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA awarded the center $367,500 last year as part of a competitive funding program called a Rural Business Opportunity Grant. "This is not a Paul Bunyan statue in a lumber town. It's a resource that's greater than that. Its activities have statewide, and, I would say, Northeast ... reach."
Until the Franco-American Heritage Center is restored to its former glory, its appeal may be limited to Little Canada. But according to long-time resident Angers, French-speakers are tough to find even there.
"They're dying off. When we're in our 70s and 80s – bleh!" she says, tossing her hand. "We're the old fogies!"
• Previous articles in this series ran July 25 (Alaska's "bridges to nowhere") and Aug. 1 (Mississippi State University's earmarks).