On January 25, I attended the Mid-Hudson regional meeting of the Path through History project. What follows is my report on the meeting which may, or may not, be the experience and take-away of others who attended (or what is happening in other regions). The Mid-Hudson Valley region includes the Hudson River counties of Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, Ulster, Orange, and Rockland, along with Sullivan County in the Catskills.
Mark Castiglione of the Hudson Valley Greenway is now serving as the Path through History project leader and is expected to make (if he hasn’t already) presentations at each regional meeting. In his comments, Castiglione reiterated some of the comments made by Ken Jackson at the project kickoff event last August in Albany: Virginia and Massachusetts do a better job telling their stories than New York, so Americans tend to think of them as American history, but New York is at least as important. Castiglione also noted the financial benefits of cultural heritage tourists who tend to spend $300 more person than regular tourists.
He advocated a better link between the professional historians and the tourist departments, something which I think is definitely needed. I look forward to specific recommendations or actions to foster such connections.
Castiglione also previewed via a short video on the technological future of the Pathway project. It will include a website linking over 700 sites, include apps with pertinent information about visiting the sites, and allow tourist comments through social media. It is a 21st century vision.
The goals of the project are:
1. Tell New York’s story
2. Increase tourism
3. Collaborate, Partner, Cross-Fertilize
4. Dynamic Heritage Experience
5. Public/Private Partnerships
6. Leverage existing efforts so as not to reinvent the wheel
7. Web and apps
The elements through which these goals are expected to be attained include:
1. Signs on the Thruway – replacing some of the current brown signs with Pathway signs has begun
2. Partnerships to address themes, workgroups, website and apps, and marketing, including I Love NY efforts, and events.
The themes of the project include: Arts and Culture, Canals and Transportation, Civil Rights, Colonial History, Innovation and Commerce, Native Americans, Natural History, American Revolution, War of 1812, and more.
After Castiglione’s presentation, Mark Kay Vrba, the chair of Dutchess County Tourism, the Hudson Valley counties tourism regional group, and the Mid-Hudson Path through History region, divided the attendees into five working groups of abut 10-12 each to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the region and possible models to emulate in the creation of our Paths.
The Regional Working Group wanted to hear what the grassroots had to say about these issues to see if that correlated with what it had been doing since the August meeting. What follows are some of the critical strengths, weaknesses, and models from the presentations by the five groups. Here are what I considered to be some of the most salient comments.
Naturally the Mid-Hudson region touted the Hudson River as its strength. The comment that struck me the most was by Tracy Doolittle McNally, a Huguenot descendant and Executive Director of Historic Huguenot Street, on the authenticity of the region’s historic sites. McNally said that unlike Sturbridge and Williamsburg, we are the real deal. We have the real buildings on the real sites where real people lived and events took place. Some of the descendants still live here. This point was driven home in a networking meeting that evening at Mount Gulian where we saw objects that had been donated by Verplanck family in 2001.
The weaknesses identified by the grassroots participants were of no surprise, but began to deviate from the mission of the Path through History project even though they are legitimate problems.
1. Number one by far mentioned by practically everyone was the lack of communication among sites, lack of collaboration, lack of connectivity, and fragmentation. Pretty much everyone is on their own and has little contact with others in the same boat. To one who has relentlessly and unsuccessfully touted the need for county and regional conferences to address exactly this concern by bringing together historic sites, municipal historians, social studies teachers, historians, and tourist departments in various venues, it was nice to hear almost every group raise the issue in one way or another. While this may not be an issue the Path through History Project intended to address, if it wishes to create actual paths in the partnership, collaborative, cross-fertilization it officially supports, then it needs to address this issue of the divided and fragmented history community.
2. Another common weakness identified across the board was the tourist with no car – transportation really can be a challenge if one doesn’t have a car. Trains can bring tourists to many locations in the mid-Hudson, but then what? What happens when tourist gets off the train? What provisions need to be made? Here is where the discussion began to significantly deviate from the goals of the Project. The tourist audience of concern by most meeting attendees were day-travelers from the New York City metro area, not the people from out-of-state or out of the country. As Executive Director of the Putnam County Historical Society Mindy Kramzien observed, there are different audiences being addressed locally. The historic sites are looking to draw more people to their locations and are not particularly concerned if they stay over in hotels and eat dinner here. If visitors are recreational tourists, as they often are in Cold Spring, they don’t even visit the historic sites there, even the ones at the very train station where they disembark! The people interested in a weekend day-trip to an historic site will pay an admission price and buy some souvenirs and if volume increases may cause some additional hiring. What day-travelers will not really do is to contribute to an increase in tax revenue. If the Path through History becomes another Ramble or Heritage New York (as it will be this June), then it will only partially succeed at its goals because those participants go home at the end of the tourist experience and not to a hotel, motel, or B&-B. Some serious thinking needs to be done about whether the focus of the Path through History project is simply to get New Yorkers to visit historic sites in their own communities, region, and state that does not require overnight lodging, a worthy goal in itself, or if it is to develop paths that do require overnight lodging. Who makes that decision about the direction of the Project given this disconnect?
3. This disconnect between the local emphasis and the overnight tourist came through in other comments as well. Some people mentioned the need to reach out to Hispanic and African-American communities, people who are typically not participants at history conferences, or visitors to history sites. That certainly is a worthy a goal and an essential one as a matter of civic responsibility, but it won’t increase tax revenue if they are simply more local people visiting local sites and going home at night. Similarly the call for more local history in the schools is a critical goal especially right now as the curriculum is being revised, but what exactly does it have to do with increasing tax revenue?
4. The most commonly cited model for the Path through History project actually was a path-based model of proven success – Elderhostel, now Road Scholars. Since IHARE’s Teacherhostels and Historyhostels obviously took their names from Elderho
stel, I personally can speak to the issue of creating actual paths through history since I have done it for years in the Hudson, Champlain, and Mohawk Valleys. Yes, if the goal of the Path through History is to increase local revenues then the Elderhostel model provides a success model already active in New York, often including historic sites. The Elderhostel path format is better than the destination-site Ramble or New York State Heritage Weekend models for sustained tourist growth in the state. This issue goes to the heart of the Path through History project, since the people running it are from the Ramble and Heritage Weekend (who meet in the morning at the same location as the afternoon Path meeting). It is unrealistic to expect people to change their paradigm and mode of operation from the day-trip destination model to the weekend/weeklong path model regardless of the project name.
Moving beyond the comments made in the presentations by the project leader and the five groups of attendees, I would like to close with some general observations about the meeting.
1. Why was the regional meeting held in Hyde Park?
The Wallace Center is a fine facility readily available to host history-related conferences in the Hudson Valley. It also is an easy drive from Albany. It is not however in the geographic or demographic center of the Mid-Hudson region as defined by the project and privileges Dutchess over the other counties. Approximately half the attendees were from Dutchess including the County Historian and County Tourist Department Chair who also is the chair of the Regional Working Group. A small group was from Orange County especially the greater Newburgh area just across the bridge from Dutchess. Most of Orange county was not represented except that the County Historian was there- the County Tourist Department Chair was not. No one was there from Sullivan County. Attendance from the other counties was in the handfuls at best. If this meeting was THE regional meeting to make people in the region aware of status of the project, than the Hyde Park location was a poor choice as evidenced by the geographical representations of the attendees.
2. Who was invited to attend?
For the record, I was not invited. I received a notice of the meeting in an e-mail but was not directly invited by the Path through History Project. It would be interesting to know who was invited and who was not. It also would be interesting to know how the word will be disseminated given the scarcity of attendance outside of Dutchess (although with 70 people, this is apparently one of the largest turnouts to a regional Path through History meeting so far). One wonders how many historic sites have concluded that this program is not for them. If true paths are to be created then even small sites should be included even if they did not make the cut as destination sites.
3. One of the five groups at the meeting (not mine) asked the question if the fix was in. It was assured that it wasn’t. I accept that this is true for who in each region will receive the $100,000 allocations. But in the larger sense, the question is spot on. If the same people who haven’t created paths requiring overnight stays are the people guiding the Path though History project, what are the odds that they now will create paths through history? People at the conference made unsolicited comments to me about the fallacy of thinking that dribs and drabs from $100,000 scattered over a seven-county region will make a difference. Photo-ops, yes. Local boosterism, yes. Making a difference for cultural heritage tourism, no!
THE $1,000,000 WOULD BE BETTER SPENT STAFFING MUSEUMWISE AND THE GREATER HUDSON HERITAGE NETWORK WITH 10 PEOPLE TO SERVE THE 10 REGIONS.
The partnerships and collaborations that Path through History project officially supports will best be accomplished by people outside the daily routine of the individual sites who are tasked with the project of improving connectivity, communication, and networking among the historic sites in each county, each region, and the state. I know this for a fact because I was that outside person when I created county history conferences, teacherhostels, and historyhostels. I know this for a fact because that is what professors do when they create NEH grants and Teaching American History grants and people come here from out of state to visit historic sites and stay overnight (my teachers in a TAH program were from Vermont). I know this for a fact because that is what private organizations do when they create an Elderhostel. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We need to use proven ways to create paths through history.
The Path through History Project is at a critical point right now. As Yogi Berra once said, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.” The Path through History Project is at that proverbial fork in the road. The program can chose between just another Ramble/New York Heritage Weekend project with apps and fancy new signs to join the multitude of signs and websites already out there or it can genuinely try to create paths through history which will require reaching outside its comfort zone, spending time and effort in each of the counties of the state, and fostering connections among multiple sites instead of having individual sites upload one-site programs to Ramble and New York State Heritage Weekend websites.
If you think this can’t be done, future posts will address some current paths through history organizational efforts to address these concerns from Connecticut.
If you think this can and should be done, comment below with your ideas.