Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Crossroads of the American Revolution General Management Plan

How does something so promising as the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area become a lost opportunity? By definition, National Heritage Area designation “offers a collaborative approach to conservation that does not compromise traditional local control over and use of the landscape.” It brings together the private sector, nonprofit interests and governmental entities to plan and implement “a strategy that focuses on the distinct qualities that make their region special.” By consensus building, the plan should not only provide “a structured forum for stakeholders to jointly determine the heritage area’s purpose, vision, mission, goals and strategies,” but it should document the actual process of partnership building. If successful, the outcome is a management plan that “describes comprehensive policies, strategies, and recommendations for telling the story of the region’s heritage and encouraging long-term resource protection, enhancement, interpretation, funding, management and development of the National Heritage Area.”

As regards a National Heritage Area focusing on New Jersey’s role in the American Revolution, “telling the story of the region’s heritage” compels a focal emphasis on heritage interpretation at thematically relevant historic sites. In my opinion, the proposed general management plan for the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area fails to accurately identify and therefore engage the necessary stakeholders. Dayton L. Sherrouse, Chairman of the Heritage Development Partnership, Inc., describes the heritage development movement as a “bottom up process,” specifically noting, “heritage areas are managed by the people who live there, preserving and telling nationally important stories through a regionally distinctive combination of natural, cultural, historic and scenic resources.” With the Crossroads of the American Revolution, this principle is turned on its head. If we define stakeholders as those who bring something of value to the planning process, then historic sites that thematically relate to this National Heritage Area are important stakeholders who remain on the sidelines as uninvolved onlookers rather than as “desired participants.”

Having worked in historical interpretation and historic sites administration for over thirty years, I recognize the problem: in my experience, most “managers” in the DEP’s Division of Parks & Forestry regarded heritage interpretation as a form of “entertainment.” While the bloodless pageantry of battle reenactments dazzled large crowds on important anniversaries, the other 364 days of the year were pretty lackluster. Scenarios in the Crossroads’ management plan strangely refer to “recreational events” that promote Crossroad themes, sites and communities. Under Scenario C, for example, “historic sites already attracting recreational users work to become recreational destinations.” To me, this suggests a frightening incomprehension of the value of heritage interpretation. Are these some of the same people who invite school groups to visit mannequin-filled cement wigwams and to use a latrine dug into an ancient cemetery, bypassing the rotting fabric of a truly historic place.

Again, in my opinion, all scenarios of the Crossroads’ management plan are unnecessarily intrusive and expensive, generating a bureaucracy that would largely duplicate and perhaps complicate the responsibilities of public employees. This is not surprising. Doesn’t the board of this 501(c) 3 non-profit organization include four state employees (three from the DEP and one from the Department of State), nine individuals with environmental credentials, two with academic credentials in history and six with backgrounds in historic preservation? Where are the historic site managers and interpreters with credible experience in operating, programming or marketing a Revolutionary War site in New Jersey?

For the most part, the scenarios seem to advocate a jobs program for self-preservationists. Scenario A has the Crossroads Association maintaining “dual central offices to administer heritage area programs (consistent with federal legislation establishing the heritage area), even though they have little or no experience or success in administering historical programs. Scenario B envisions “regional offices to work with communities in different geographic areas facing different issues and partner with local organizations and institutions to strengthen them and provide programming for local residents.” And as if we needed more paperwork or middle-mismanagement, the staff of these regional offices will be assigned to identify “those most committed to programming, interpretation, linkages, historic preservation, stewardship and community planning through community applications.” So sharpen your pencils and walk slowly with the point down!

Scenario C features “the required two offices that act in many ways as a heritage-area-wide destination marketing office (DMO).” Once again, the current board structure, excluding historic site administrators, historians and interpreters, will be maintained. This new politburo will coordinate regional DMOs, interpretive attractions and visitor service communities, while providing “assistance and incentives” for smaller historic sites to comply with hospitality and visitor experience guidelines. And talk about the pursuit of happiness! The Crossroads’ staff will not only work to increase visitor services, but also “community development to enhance the visitor experience and quality of life.” Does this mean they’ll finally install restrooms at these sites? Oh, the humanity! Under Scenarios D and E, the Crossroads will also work from dual central offices and the Crossroads’ board will remain the same. Not much choice here.

The vision becomes ever more Byzantine. A Committee of Correspondence, replete with subcommittees, will help organize regional collaboration, oversee heritage area programming and engage a wide variety of partners. Oh, yes, that’s what we’ve been lacking all these years—more committees of oversight (no pun intended)! An annual convention for sites, communities and other partners will share technical information on education, interpretation and community planning and build a cross-heritage-area sense of collaboration. This is real grassroots’ stuff. Under Scenario D, the Committee of Correspondence will even organize and energize open space protection and historic preservation and work to establish more state funding and policies. Hey, what about recycling? Again, there is no comprehension that this Heritage Area is primarily about interpretive linkages and the American Revolution. And who will benefit from all this cumbersome and expensive bureaucracy?

Behind Curtain Number One—Scenario A: Current Conditions Continue claims the Crossroads Association has been active for some time in sponsoring various programs and it will continue as an "umbrella organization focusing on heritage-area wide and statewide marketing and programming.” I may be all wet, but I haven’t been under any umbrella lately. Other than last November’s beacon fires, lit mainly in New York State, I am personally unaware of any programs that CARA has sponsored? Strangely—somehow implying an alternative would be desirable or feasible—“existing sites and attractions remain responsible for interpretation.” Naturally, the Association will support the “the programs of state-level actors,” naming the Division of Travel and Tourism, the New Jersey Historic Trust, the New Jersey Historical Commission, and the New Jersey Division of Parks & Forestry. If they’re largely represented on the Board of Directors, I guess we could call them “self-supporters.”

Scenario B: Revolutionary Legacies envisions working at the community level to explore our evolving Revolutionary legacy, giving priority to “education, preservation and community development” rather than protecting “the physical heritage of the Revolution that has survived unevenly across the heritage area.” Does this mean they’re going to sponsor Tea Parties? In this scenario, the heritage area becomes irrelevant, a mere ghostly excuse to herd youngsters into Crossroads’ re-education centers. As if they didn’t already, “historic sites will use local stories to illustrate the economic, ethnic, religious, social, political issues experienced by Americans then and now.” Furthermore, under this strange scenario, “visitor services will be strengthened in downtown centers with an emphasis on dining and shopping” and the Heritage Area will focus on “family-oriented activities and such events as marathons and bicycle races…. “ Under resource protection, the Crossroads of the American Revolution Association will concentrate upon “addressing energy use, storm water, water quality, streetscapes and community parks, all to reinforce community and neighborhood character.” Is this what they call “mission creep?”

What a relief! Scenario C: Welcoming Visitors envisions a “program-rich, highly visible and easily understandable” Heritage Area, which supposedly “fulfils the Crossroads mission by preserving and interpreting historic sites and landscapes in order to present this story effectively.” You wonder how we ever survived up to this point? Once again the politburo raises it head, demanding, “interpretation will follow a heritage-area-wide interpretive and tourism plan focused on primary visitor attractions. In other words, they intend to further abandon undeveloped historic sites so that the privileged and compliant few can continue to gorge themselves at the public trough. This scenario recommends “high-quality presentations of evocative stories” and frequent updates of exhibits and interpretive materials. Wish I’d thought of that!

LOL! Scenario D: Resource Stewardship claims the survival of so “much physical evidence of the Revolutionary War” is somehow due “to New Jersey’s longstanding commitment to protecting open space and historic places.” Under this incoherent scenario, “Those venturing beyond primary attractions will find sites preserved with passion but limited resources for interpretation.” Yet, somewhat oddly, they envision visitors services being strengthened in historic community centers.” “Circuit-rider” staff will address “community planning, open space protection and acquisition, sites’ bricks-and-mortar needs, and recreational enhancements.” To arms! To arms! The Roller-bladers are coming!

Scenario E: Regions and Roads contrarily balances investment in the visitor experience and resource protection, emphasizing education over tourism, providing programs for students from kindergarten through college. This is supposedly how we will educate the next generation of stewards, storytellers and civic leaders. Of course, there is no mention of the fact that New Jersey historic sites have been doing this for as much as a century.

Personally, I think we’d be just as well off without any of the above. There is no need for an overweening quasi-governmental non-profit association competing unfairly for scarce private and public funding; the money would be far better spent at any historic site improving amenities, accessibility, availability and the visitor experience.

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