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Heritage Tourism Lessons from the Tappan Zee Bridge

Once upon a time America was known for its building projects, for its infrastructure, for its vision of a better tomorrow. New York was in the forefront of such optimism and achievement. Think of the Erie Canal which helped make us the Empire State, the Croton Aqueduct, the Brooklyn Bridge, the skyscrapers from the Woolworth Building to the Empire State Building to the Twin Towers, and, of course, Robert Moses. Now the new Tappan Zee Bridge bids to join this pantheon of larger than life achievements made in New York.

Besides all the other concerns related to the bridge, there is the issue of tourism. Back in June, Mary Kay Vrba, tourism director for Dutchess County and leader of the Hudson Valley Path region, spoke to 50 people at “Destination Rockland: Blazing New Trails in Tourism.” Visions of jingling cash registers filled the heads of the participants who envisioned tourists by foot, bike, and later a revitalized bus system bringing people from the east side of the river to Rockland County. Alden Wolfe, chairman of the Rockland County Legislature convened the conference as a “launching point” for future discussion on this subject.

Vrba compared the impact of the new bridge with what already has occurred in Dutchess County with the opening of the Walkway Over the Hudson. That bridge draws 700,000 visitors annually, an impressive number. She suggested to her Rockland audience that they were even better situated than Poughkeepsie to welcome the bridge walkers into town because of Rockland’s access to the Hudson River, hiking trails, quaint river villages with stores and restaurants whereas Poughkeepsie lacks such popular tourist attractions as art galleries. Parking was identified as a problem which needed to be addressed as South Nyack and the Tappan Zee bridge project are attempting to do.

As an example of the tourist opportunities at present, the Historical Society Rockland County, a very active county-wide historical society, offered three-hour boat rides on the Hudson with local historians and representatives from the bridge project. The program covered the impact of the first bridge opened in 1955 as farmland was transformed into a New York City suburb. That change had been the subject of an exhibition in 2009 by the historical society called, appropriately enough, The Tappan Zee Bridge: Transforming Rockland County and of the book The Tappan Zee Bridge and the Forging of the Rockland Suburb by Roger Panetta, Fordham University. As historical society president Larry Singer said, “The Tappan Zee Bridge changed everything about Rockland County.”

The new bridge was the subject of another front-page article in the local paper on Sunday, October 19. This one noted some of the tourist impacts of the bridge itself – not what one might do in Tarrytown or Nyack at either end of the bridge but on the bridge itself over the water. There will be six scenic overlooks built along the 3-mile path as part of the bridge. The article summarized the visions of tourist sugar plums dancing in the heads and wallets of the affected communities.

“Just to simply build the bridge won’t deliver the greatest return for you from a tourism perspective. They want a reasonable experience and not to just take a photo of it. The parties need to start talking and planning for it.”  So said Bill Baker, chief strategist of Total Destination Marketing, based in Oregon.

That lesson has been taken to heart by Michael Yanko. He is building a hotel in Nyack directly as a result of the new Tappan Zee Bridge. He is expecting visitors and is preparing for them. “We will have packages for couples to come from the city and to stay in Nyack for the weekend,” he said.

I almost gagged when I read this. The hotel developer has realized and is acting on something the Path through History project has yet to realize: the proactive need to create multi-day programs that can be offered year round.

How difficult would it be to create comparable weekend packages as paths through history in Yonkers, Beacon, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, Hudson, Kingston, Albany, Troy, Schenectady, etc. especially at MetroNorth and Amtrak stops?

Consider the words of Rockland County Legislator Nancy Low-Hogan who lives in Nyack:

In my mind, the (path) [she is referring to the bike and pedestrian path on the bridge] is going to be a tourist attraction. Period. End of story. That means opportunity. It also means challenges and that requires planning.

She has joined forces with fellow legislators Wolfe and Harriet Cornell in support of tourism. A meeting is planned for November with South Nyack, Grand View, Piermont, and Orangetown to plan for the future tourism. Later other local and regional business leaders and tourist experts will be contacted. Here we see what can happen with pro-active leadership combining the political, business, and tourist people to create multiday experiences encompassing multiple communities to create paths through histories even though that phrase is ignored.

Now imagine if this was a real Path through History project instead. There is only one site listed on the Path website from the Rockland communities identified above. Therefore it would not be possible to create a trip such as the Rockland County legislators, businesses, and tourist sites envision from the Path website. It is inadequate for their tourist vision.

It is possible the new Tappan Zee bridge would be added to the Path website just as the Walkway Over the Hudson is listed, but what are the procedures for listing new sites? Assuming the Path through History did list the new Tappan Zee Bridge on its website, the second thing it would do is put up a sign at the bridge with the Path logo. And that’s it. That’s all the Path through History would do. There would be no third thing. Of course whatever Rockland County develops could be listed on the Path (and Ramble) weekends so the Governor could take credit for it but that’s all. It wouldn’t contribute anything to making Rockland Paths in History happen nor has it so far.

Unfortunately the situation is more dire than this. After all, even without a new Tappan Zee Bridge, there still was an opportunity for Rockland to create multi-day multi-site tourist programs which could be offered to tour operators just as other communities could do as well. How many times have I written about the need to do precisely that here at The New York History Blog and also suggested it private emails to various counties? How many such paths have been created since the Path project was initiated?

You don’t need a new bridge to recognize the benefit of collaboration and planning: those are some of the buzz words used at the first and only Hudson Valley region Path meeting in January 2013 (held in Dutchess County). Where has the communication, collaboration, and planning been since then?

The new bridge is providing the spark to get people talking to each other to develop new tourist packages. That same spark existed on August 28, 2012, at the kickoff session for the Path through History in Albany. And then it was allowed to die.

Photo: The new design for the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River.

4 thoughts on “Heritage Tourism Lessons from the Tappan Zee Bridge

  1. Once again, your commentary is right on the money Peter.
    Every question you offer is valid and needs to be answered.
    As far as I can see (which may not be very far), the TPAs here in the Finger Lakes Region have done there little thing with PTH (Path) and now it all has returned to business as normal and usual.
    Your point that you don’t need the spark and dazzle of a new multi-billion dollar bridge to vision new opportunities and plan new programs for the touring public whether local, regional or beyond.
    I recommend we focus on local (within a 30 to 40 mile drive). These programs will provide a solid base for the wider….long distance tourist….even the international tourist.
    But we do need a PTH (Path) process for adding to and modifying what has already been accomplished.
    Thank you again for another meaningful article.
    Best regards, Peter

    1. You are quite right to point out that there is a mechanism for self-nomination by sites which were not included the first time around on the Path through History to be included. There are several issues to be considered regarding this process.

      1. How have the history sites been notified about this process?
      2. The criteria and amenities required to be accepted may be beyond the reach of many sites especially smaller ones without full-time staff. Cultural heritage tourists may want to see sites that don’t have all the amenities. For example, see #3.
      3. Where does the Path project provide for historic locations that may not have a museum? I am referring specifically to the many historic signs. People may be interested to know where Solomon Northup was captured or John Andre was hanged. But when planning a tour to reflect their interest in a particular subject the Path website isn’t very helpful nor can it be based on the formal criteria established.
      4. How many sites have been added since the project debut in 2012 over two years ago? I have received emails sometimes through New York History and sometimes privately from history organizations which have had problems to being included on the website and ultimately were rejected and gave up.

      So while you are right to point this out what is missing is the feedback loop or communication between history community and the Path project to improve the latter.

      Thanks for writing.

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