Capitalizing on Our History: Heritage-Based Programs Spur Economic Development

From the Arkansas Delta to the wine country of southeastern Washington State and beyond, rural regions around the country are conserving, rehabilitating and developing cultural and historic assets to fuel economic development.

Dubbed “heritage-based development,” the goal is to build sustainable communities and strengthen regional economies by promoting farmsteads, buildings, districts and landscapes, as well as local arts, crafts, music, food and events.

Jim Lindberg, field director in the Denver Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said the current effort sprang from the success of the national Main Street program.

“That work in the 1980s launched the idea that our heritage is not only important to us culturally and historically, but it is an asset that we can build upon and create sustainable economic development. Main Street was a way to re-enliven historic buildings in small towns and find new uses for them. It’s worked extremely well.”

In many ways that approach has helped many small downtowns bounce back.

“We successfully married the idea of economic development and heritage,” he said. Lindberg explained the National Trust and other groups have been involved with heritage tourism for many years, citing the “Barn Again” program in New England that also dates to the 1980s.

“When many rural communities looked at what might attract travelers, history and culture are near the top of the list,” he said.

Connecting Heritage to Economic Development

About seven years ago, his organization focused on regional heritage-based rural development with two projects: One in an eight-county region of central Kentucky and another in 15 counties in Arkansas along the Mississippi Delta.

“Each had different challenges and assets economically,” he said. “In Kentucky, it was an area with growth pressure from Louisville and Lexington. There was a loss of farmland and rural character with the economic base shifting because of the loss of tobacco subsidies. The program was dubbed ‘Kentucky Crossroads.’”

Communities involved in this program included Bardstown, Campbellsville, Danville, Greensburg, Harrodsburg, Hodgenville, Lebanon, Perryville and Springfield. During the first three years, it led to 57 new businesses, 255 net new jobs, $12.2 million in private investment and $42.5 million in public investment in these Main Street towns. Though no figures are available for recent years, he said the economic growth has continued.

In one case, the owner of the Hatchett Vineyard in Washington County, Kentucky, replaced his tobacco crop with grape vines. The man wanted to convert an old barn into a tasting room and he was able to get the structure listed in the National Register of Historic Places so future rehabilitation work could be eligible for state and federal tax credits.

In another locale, the Crossroads program staffers helped another farmer use these same tax credits to repair an 1897 mule barn and other historic farm structures. To keep the farm viable, Lindberg said, the family has shifted from raising mules to cattle and opened a bed and breakfast in the historic farmhouse on the land to tap into the growing agritourism market in the area.

“This approach starts with the conservation of an existing asset like a barn, historic building, landscape, neighborhood or whole downtown and then looking at ways to connect commerce and economic development to that those assets and reusing them as places for business and tourism draws,” he said.

“A lot of older buildings are a great fit for small businesses because the capital expense for occupying them may not be as great as it would be to build new. Moreover, when assets are already in place and connected to existing infrastructure, you reduce the need to spend more dollars and spread out into the landscape. So there is transportation efficiency that comes from this sort of thing.

“And we really see a triple bottom line with the social and community benefits of this work, too, because it will only be successful if it is community led. We spend a lot of time building new leadership and that piggybacks on a sense of pride that communities have in important assets that they believe are worth saving and celebrating.”

Arkansas Attracts Tourism through Its Unique History

The economy of the Arkansas Delta, which experienced an agriculture boom from the late 30s through the 50s, went into a decline in the 1960s. Mechanization of agriculture led to the out-migration of people, capital and resources.

Lindberg said the area, filled with unique food traditions, a rich musical heritage, two National Scenic Byways and a colorful history, was left without a significant employment base. As a result, apathy and hopelessness became common in many Delta communities.

Beth Wiedower was the field director of the Arkansas Delta Rural Heritage Development Initiative.

“As part of the heritage tourism effort, we wanted to create unique and authentic destinations that would attract visitors and their dollars while preserving heritage resources that are unique to the rural region. There were 16 different projects under that one strategy.

“So we created the Arkansas Delta Music Trail and published a CD for visitors that highlighted 14 tracks of music with everyone from country singer Johnny Cash to Louis Jordan, called the ‘father of Rhythm and Blues.’”

She said they also developed a driving tour highlighting key Civil Rights locations in the Arkansas Delta and worked with groups to promote African American homecoming events.

A second strategy was to help launch local businesses.

“To do that, we worked with local lenders to educate them about incentives and resources for historic properties and entrepreneurs who wanted to locate in the downtown area of their communities,” she said.

Another program was called “Arkansas DeltaMade,” which she said bridged a significant gap between entrepreneurs and small businesses in the Delta and the resources they needed to grow and expand their marketing and branding efforts.

“That’s been one of the key successes of our work in Arkansas in terms of promoting unique wares based on the heritage of the region, such as pottery, music, food and a lot of products like BBQ sauce, tamales, fried pies, pork knuckle gravy and other traditional southern food specific to the Delta,” she said.

They also worked on education and advocacy, which included the successful passage of legislation through the state Legislature of the Delta Ecotourism Tax Credit, a 25 percent tax credit for entrepreneurs and property owners who undertake a heritage tourism related business in one of the 15 designated Delta counties.

“We also successfully passed a statewide tax credit for historic preservation and rehab in Arkansas, which they didn’t have before,” she said.

In addition, they worked with county judges to inform them about the economic impact of historic preservation and heritage tourism.

“In Arkansas, we have a strong county courthouse preservation program that is funded through the state,” she said. “So most of what county judges knew was related to courthouses.

“But our point was to talk to them about why it’s better to place county offices downtown or on Main Street rather than in the strip mall on the outskirts of town next to Wal-Mart. We also worked with district commissions to help designate and create ordinances in towns with a wealth of historic resources.”

Another big success was creating a regional “Arkansas Delta” brand where none had existed before.

“In the past, people here just referred to it as the Delta or Eastern Arkansas. Nationally, people associated the Delta with Mississippi,” she said.

The final strategy was the landmark preservation effort, which was used as a teaching tool for communities on how to save and restore sites.

“We just completed a $4 million project in Lake Village in the southern portion of the region where the city administration relocated its offices into a historic building downtown,” she said. “Moreover, it’s the first LEED certified building in eastern Arkansas.”

The other significant project that will open this August is the boyhood home of Johnny Cash — one of 14 preservation projects groups worked on.

“As a result of all this, we’ve seen increased economic activity in the region,” Wiedower added. “But more importantly than that, from our standpoint, is the success we had in building the local capacity to continue to do this kind of work.

“These folks are now our foot soldiers for smart reinvestment in historic preservation and rehabilitation as an economic tool for that rural region. A number of things are starting to take off now because of them.”

Mississippi Embraced Its Blues Heritage

Across the river to the east, The Mississippi Blues Trail has attracted national and international attention to that state.

It began in December of 2006, when three historic Blues-related markers were placed. Since then, as interest exploded, more than 170 markers have gone up.

Scott Barretta, a sociologist at the University of Mississippi who worked on the trail said one of the markers honored Charlie Patton — father of the Delta Blues — near his burial site in Holly Ridge.

“Over the years, we have had grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Mississippi Department of Transportation. We wanted the first ones to be within a reasonable distance from one another so you could visit them all in a day or two,” he said.

“But there’s never actually been a trail where we said go to this one and that one and then this one,” he chuckled.

Barretta said state and federal grants have helped pay for the markers, which run between $4,000 and $5,000 each to install. But local communities support the effort by paying for half the cost.

Barretta said he isn’t sure what the effect has been on the state because it’s hard to gauge the economic impact of roadside markers.

“But one thing we noticed, and this is probably one of the best measures, was that even during the recent recession, tourism tax revenue in the town of Clarksdale went up when everything else was falling in the area,” said Barretta, who noted that actor Morgan Freeman co-owns the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. (It’s located next to the Delta Blues Museum).

He said Mississippi has embraced its Blues heritage as a way to promote cultural tourism. Nor did it hurt that director Martin Scorsese made a film on the Blues that focused on the state or that 2003 was declared the Year of the Blues by the U.S. Congress and the state of Mississippi.

“When you drive into Mississippi, signs say ‘birthplace of American music,’” he said. “The standard license plate has a picture of B.B. King’s guitar. And in 2006, a $15 million museum opened up in Indianola called the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center.”

Barretta said he believes the state began promoting the blues over the past decade both for reasons of pride and economic development.

“Before that, people who celebrated blues were music aficionados,” he said. “Now it’s also to promote tourism and bring money into the state. Both are good reasons to honor this part of our cultural and musical heritage.”

Walla Walla — a Wine Adventure

More than 2,000 miles to the northwest in Walla Walla, Wash., community leaders have used a booming wine industry as a way to pump new energy into the heart of this city of 35,000.

Long known for its wheat and sweet onions, Italian immigrant families grew grapes when they moved to this part of southeast Washington 120 years ago.

“So making wine wasn’t a completely new phenomenon,” said David Woolson, head of the local Chamber of Commerce.

“But the current wine industry as we know it in the valley dates back about 20 to 25 years ago with wineries like Woodward Canyon and Leonetti. And the American Viticulture Area designation for the Walla Walla area was established some 15 years ago after people realized there was a unique combination of soil and climate here that lent itself to very high-end red wines and more recently whites,” he said.

Now, there are a whopping 145 wineries within 15 minutes of the city. And 35 of them have tasting rooms downtown — many in renovated historic buildings.

“That’s meant a lot to our town,” Woolson said.

“The wine industry as a whole has created $700 million of economic impact here. So aside from the direct economy related to the wineries and the jobs that are connected, obviously wine tourism has exploded. On the heels of that, there is a great culinary scene that is growing.” Woolson, who has been president of the Chamber for about three years, said the wine industry has “transformed” Walla Walla.

“I was born here, grew up in the Walla Walla area and left the day after I graduated from high school vowing never to come back,” said the 56-year-old Woolson, who had a 30-year career in film and television in Los Angeles and Portland.

“But come back, I did. The city has a genuine aspect to it that hasn’t changed. Folks visit and it has a real visceral connection. So, yes, it has changed in a positive way. But it also hasn’t.”

“Underneath that, this is a historic town going back to the 1830s,” Woolson continued. “It was a major fur trading hub for Hudson Bay, near the Columbia River. Marcus Whitman was an early missionary in the 1830s and 40s and Lewis and Clark came back through here on their return from the Pacific.”

Woolson said Walla Walla weathered the recession fairly well, but the opening of tasting rooms in “spruced up” buildings was a boon to the downtown.

“There is quite an eclectic mix with tasting rooms and personalities behind the counters,” he said.

Having the wine industry only builds on what he said is Walla Walla’s very robust sense of place.

“We are progressive in moving forward, but there is a strong tie in honoring the past and its historical elements. That’s a huge attractor to arts, culture and entertainment as well as people who are looking for a unique lifestyle and climate and wine country.”

On Common Ground extends a special thank you to James Lindberg for his contribution to this article. Several of the examples in this article were first identified in the report “Heritage-Based Rural Development” by James Lindberg (National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2011).

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