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Historians And Economic Development Councils: Lessons From Long Island

Now that I have become more aware of the Regional Economic Development Councils, I decided to review the ten regions in that program and see if there was any connection with the Path though History. As it turns out, two Path regions have submitted proposals to the Regional Economic Development Councils: Long Island and Western New York. In this post, I would like to focus on what Long Island has achieved as an example for the other 8 regions.

The first point to notice is who participated. The answer is quite significant as it demonstrates what should be done and often isn’t because Long Island’s answer was everyone.

Bay Shore Historical Society
East Hampton Historical Society
Farmingdale Bethpage Historical Society
Gold Coast Mansions Historic Long Island
Huntington Historical Society
Long Island North Shore Heritage Area (LINSHA)
Nassau County Historical Society
Northport Historical Society
North Shore Land Alliance
Oyster Bay Historical Society
Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA)
Suffolk County Historical Society

As you can see from the list, participants included the two county historical societies in the region, some regional groups within the Long Island region, and municipal historical societies. In other words, the Long Island region ignored the restriction to sites along the Interstate, ignored the restriction to the 15 individual crown jewels selected by he Path working group for the slick glossy pamphlet handed out at the kickoff celebration last August, and instead focused on a more inclusive approach involving the history community of the region. Exactly right. They call these sites “anchors” and secondary anchors” in their vision plan.

The Long Island history community also recognizes the need for the participating organizations to cooperate and collaborate. It proposes the following:


We will strive to achieve greater collaboration among our regional historic sites and organizations while also promoting cross regional collaboration.

We will work to coordinate site and organization events so that they occur at similar times throughout the year.

Sites will be encouraged to keep similar hours of operation so that their facilities are more accessible to tourists.

Connecting on social media and organization websites is another way historic sites can help each other and encourage heritage tourism.

As to how they will go about accomplishing these objectives, the Long Island region identified something near and dear to my heart as regular readers of my posts will immediately recognize:

Host annual Historic LI Conference to include representatives from historic sites, local politicians, county and town historians, Historical Societies, Chambers of Commerce, friends groups, Preservation Organizations, garden clubs, hotels, tour guides and transportation companies to engage historic sites that will benefit from the growth of the “Path Through History” initiative. When public and private organizations partner, the historic resources are
more effectively promoted to meet the visitor’s experience. Additionally, historic assets can be leveraged to enhance the economic and cultural goals by attracting new investment, creating jobs, revitalizing downtowns and neighborhoods, building pride and a sense of place, and educating people of all ages about their heritage.

Naturally, I would like to take credit for being the impetus for this proposal for the county history conference in the Long Island vision plan, but I recognize that the merits of doing it stand on their own. Clearly whoever initiated the meeting with the participants listed above further recognized the need to meet periodically involving all facets of the history community. Kudos to the Long Island leadership.

In case you are wondering where is education in this vision quest, don’t worry, it’s present too.

Making History Personal and Tangible
There is no doubt that we have failed to teach history in America in a way that engages students and adults, alike. The focus has always been on teaching dates and facts, mostly as it relates to war. This is not only boring but fails to include other important aspects of history through lifestyle attributes, such as architecture, fashion, hairstyles, art, music, etc. Historic sites evoke an emotional experience because it shows us, in a tangible way, our connections to the past.

Rumor has it, that the same lesson was delivered at the MANY/Museumwise conference in April. As I heard it through the grapevine, there was a session with some college kids who were asked to provide the youth perspective on what museums could do to be more attractive to the younger generation. The expected answer of course was to have more dodads, gadgets, electronics, and screens for the social media savvy generation. Exactly wrong. What the kids craved was the authentic, the real deal, to be able to talk to docents as people not as programmed tour guides, to be able to touch, handle and use objects as real people once did. They are connected to gadgets all day long, why not try something real instead? The Long Island region seems to have grasped that lesson. We are a story telling species and we like to participate in the story and have the emotional experience that connects us to the past in a tangible way.

By coincidence, Time had a recent article on “Total Immersion” on how immersive theater is the rage. The article describes how plays now get the audience involved in the action as the people move about throughout a building, interact with the actors, and even partake of refreshments. According to La Jolla playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley, the immersive shows are “redefining the relationship between the audience and the theater.” The result makes theatergoing a unique live experience that can’t be duplicated on a computer or TV screen. Think of your historic museum as a playhouse with a story in history to tell. Now think of all the out-of-work actors there are in New York as Law and Order shuts down! How about asking the local high school to write a play on local history and then to perform in the house or at the site where the story really occurred.

One way the Long Island region noted people connect to the past is through genealogy. That certainly is a way people do it on a personal level. It then provides a museum the opportunity to show what life in that past was like.

Since government officials love to bandy about figures on the economic impact of tourism, it is necessary to cut through their spin blather and focus on what it means for historical tourism. The Long Island region discovered the following results for the primary reason why people visit Long Island. Since the numbers exceed 100% I assume that respondents could check off multiple boxes. I also note the absence of business or family travel from this list.

Beach                                       31%        (Call it recreation)
Good shopping                        30%
Landmarks and icons              25%
Historic Sites                            23%
Local artisans/craft festivals   22%

Still these numbers should give historic sites pause the next time they hear a governor, mayor, or county tourist department bragging about the impact of tourism. IT DOESN’T NECESSARILY MEAN VISITORS TO HISTORIC SITES.

Given this background and information, one now turns to what Long Island intends to do besides the regional history conference. Besides some of the standard ideas which I will skip over, there were some specific recommendations which go directly to the heart of what I said the Path through History project should do but doesn’t: CREATE PATHS!

1. Encourage the development of “Tours” or “Visitor Itineraries” through independent tour operators and step-on guides, hotels by geographic location, category or theme.
2. Include self-guided driving and walking tours. Bundle destinations to make them more affordable.
3. Appeal to local and regional visitors by providing suggested itineraries that can be experienced in a day or a weekend.
4. Appeal to global visitors by suggesting itineraries and linkages that will highlight the appeal of perceived simpler times and provide an experience that will make the history come alive as well provide the peripheral lodging, entertainment and dining options for longer stays.
5. Foster the marketing of events and programs aimed at children and families to increase visitor numbers. Let the public know that children are welcome at our historic sites.
6. Connect with schools to support Long Island History curriculum.

The boldface was added. Notice the proactive element at work here. This isn’t, “Oh, we’ll just list these places on a website and let the tourist figure it out.” That’s been the Path/Ramble model for the past 13 years or so which thinks if you list all the sites related to the Dutch, the American Revolution, or Hudson River Art that you somehow have created a trip a person actually could do in one day. Long Island knows better. It has to provide and suggest tours and work with tour operators to promote them. Exactly right.

One presumes that at some point the history community will reach out to the Long Island Council for the Social Studies which has an annual October conference as part of the effort to connect with the curriculum.

Finally, let’s talk money. Long Island knows that to implement their vision requires money and it is going to the Regional Economic Development Council to request it.

Long Island Path Through History Budget
Website Development:                       $35,000
Video Vignette Development:             $35,000
Advertising (Print and SEM):            ($15,000)
Provided in-kind (no cost) by LICVB
Public Relations Contractor:              $15,000
Includes Press Relations & Social Media
Collateral:                                             $5,000
Sponsor Administrative:                      $10,000
TOTAL:                                              $100,000

Regardless of the merits of any individual item, notice what Long Island is doing in contrast to the Path project. Instead of playing off one historic site against another where each individual site is competing for petty sums, the Long Island region has proposed a collaborative budget designed to assist all the participating organizations. Exactly right.

The Long Island region is doing it right. In a future post, I will report on the results of the Western New York region.

As for the remaining 8 regions, there is obviously a story to tell for each one of them, but I don’t know them. The Mohawk Valley region is struggling. A region by that name does exist in the Regional Economic Development Councils but not in the Path through History. Since I mentioned that in a previous post it seems to have engendered some discussion within the “Central New York region” (try branding that!) about what to do. The Mohawk Valley also suffers due to the closing by New York State of the Mohawk Valley Heritage Commission which would have been a natural vehicle through which to accomplish what Long Island has.

The less said about the Mid-Hudson Valley Region’s efforts  the better.

The Long Island region showcases what can be done at the grassroots level and the potential of working through the Regional Economic Development Councils. State meetings of the history community should provide sessions on the need to collaborate and cooperate and how some regions seem to be making it work. Perhaps if enough regions succeed at doing what Long Island is doing, the Path through History project will develop into something useful after all.

8 thoughts on “Historians And Economic Development Councils: Lessons From Long Island

  1. I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for pointing out the Long Island historic communities’ efforts to preserve as much of the past as we can; at times it can be quite a struggle. As a member of the Mastic Peninsula Historical Society, as well as 3 other surrounding historical societies, I am becoming keenly aware of just how important these endeavors actually are. I am relatively new to the preservation aspect of history; however, I now try to access as much information as possible in order to be most effective in our preservation efforts.

  2. A similar collaboration called Partners for Albany Stories has been working in Albany. There are 11 historic and cultural organizations involved. We also submitted proposals for funding through the REDC last year and will do so again this year. We plan to implement a city-wide interpretive plan that will draw attention to the many historic resources in Albany. Hopefully we can also cultivate a greater level of interest in preserving these resources.

  3. I love this blog post! I will be forwarding this info to our His Soc of RC volunteer “Bus Trips” Committee (which is taking on all kinds of events now….Walking Tours included.) We would love to expand to include the “immersion theatre” Concept. And Love the “CREATE PATHS”. …”Itineraries for Visitors”… This post has succinctly identified concepts that the small group of us at HSRC have been bantering about, without quite knowing what we were getting at! It clarifies and lends legitimacy to yearnings a simple volunteer like me has been grappling with. Thank you! Now, getting to the big part: the planning and execution…

  4. In 1998 (the Centennial of NYC) I published an article in the Long Island Sunday edition of the New York Times focusing on the Centennial of LawnGuyland- the portion of Long Island remaining after Kings and western Queens County became part of Greater New York City. Nassau County was created from the three eastern townships of Queens (Hempstead, North Hempstead and Oyster Bay) which still exist politically.

    By the 1920’s Brooklyn residents began dropping the “LI” from their postal addresses and Queens residents dropped the “LI” in the 1950’s when postal zones were established. Today, Lawn Guyland (note the Brooklyn accent) has come to mean Nassau and Suffolk despite the fact that Long Island contains four counties with shared histories. The “Long Island Room” at the main Queens Library in Jamaica was renamed the “Queens Archives” several years ago and is still a superlative source of information about “Greater Queens” (before 1898.)

    The artificial division of the physical Long Island has done a great disservice to historical narrative on both sides of the boundary.

    1. Hi Jack,

      You raise a good point. Back in the days of the American Revolution, Long Island really was a long island. Now it has been truncated and in our mental maps it doesn’t include lands roughly east of the Throgs Neck Bridge even though historically it did. This might make for a good topic at the Queens College history conference in October. Besides asking where does upstate begin we can ask where does Long Island begin.


    1. I am not familiar with the destruction of the historic sites in Long Island if that is the meaning of your question. Could you be more specific?


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