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Inside New York State’s History Tourism Bubble

The Albany-Manhattan bubble is a term I use to describe the alternate reality in which the New York State government operates regarding history tourism.

Recent events in New York, Albany, and Corning (The New York Times Travel Show, Tourism Action Day, a Tourism Advisory Council Meeting, and the Museum Association of New York Annual Conference), and the presentations and comments I heard from by the inhabitants of the Albany-Manhattan bubble, demonstrate a disconnect with the real world and little hope that anything constructive will be done to bridge that gap.

The New York Times Travel Show

This year, for the first time, there was a separate area dedicated to booths representing New York State. This point was made on several occasions by Gavin Landry, executive director, Empire State Development, I LOVE NEW YORK, and Ross Levi, Vice President Marketing Initiatives for Empire State Development, I LOVE NEW YORK, and the defacto face of the Path through History project.

At the travel show, Ross identified four areas of tourist promotion for the state: adventures and eco-tourism, the Path through History, Taste NY, and LGBT. He said the Path was really important for New York and mentioned 350 attractions. I presume he was referring to the number of sites on the Path website and not to the total number of historic sites in the state. This does raise the issue of how many of the historic sites in the State are on the website. For example, in the Town of Rye where I live, Playland Amusement Park is listed, but the Rye Historical Society is not. Nor is Tom Paine Cottage in New Rochelle where I grew up. I confess that navigating the site and its search engine leaves me mystified – perhaps I missed them.

Given the importance of the Path through History and the existence of an aisle of New York State booths, one might expect to see an abundance of Path references on display in the booths themselves. That expectation would lead to disappointment  – one would scarcely know the Path through History project existed. Only a single folder from the Mohawk Valley (the region removed from the Path project in 2012), revealed any awareness of the Path through History project. While the Path through History was being touted as one of the critical components of New York State tourism in the symposium downstairs, upstairs (in the real world) it didn’t exist.

Tourism Action Day

At Tourism Action Day New York’s Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul addressed the assembled advocates in the well of the Legislative Office Building. She praised Governor Andrew Cuomo for his support of tourism specifically referring to his personal involvement with winery tourism, fishing, and food. She didn’t mention Governor Cuomo visiting an historic site. When was the last time you saw a photo-op of the Governor at an historic site? If a picture is worth one thousand words than the absence of that photo undermines a thousand press releases.

The Lieutenant Governor did mention seeing a Path through History sign at a women’s event in Seneca Falls. I doubt she meant to suggest that the Path through History contributed to creating the program in any way. I hope she meant to suggest that the sign was visible proof that Cuomo is making an effort on behalf of history tourism through the erection of these signs. At the MANY conference, Ross Levi mentioned that over 3,200 signs have been (including some for locations which previously had no sign). The signs do represent actual work that has been done, but one recent commenter noted:

“I too have a major problem with NY State Tourism and the Path through History program. First off, their road side signs are a disaster; way too small for someone driving by at 60+ MPH. They may not be able to help it, but some signs have way too many local destinations on them for a driver or passengers to fully appreciate. When I reached out to them on several occasions regarding this and other suggestions, I received the standard response and attitude from these type organizations , “thank you, but we know what we are doing and have a nice day.”

While this hardly qualifies as a scientific sample, it does raise the issue of what benefits the signs have produced.

Tourism Advisory Council Meeting

The Tourism Advisory Council Meeting is open to the public and the press. I reserved my attendance as a member of press. My impression from the meeting is that no member of the press ever attended before so they took for granted I was part of the history-public.

During the recent Tourism Advisory Council Meeting, the Path through History project was described as a very exciting major component of New York State tourism (I was deep in the bubble here). Ross Levi stated that there were 380 Path Weekend events in 2014. At the Museum Association of New York (MANY) conference, in a session entitled “Perfect Partnerships: Museums and Tourism”, Levi repeated this information and added a small phrase to the effect that many of these events were activities “you already do.” That is the same sentiment that Dutchess County Historian and now chair of the Path through History Hudson Valley Region Will Tatum made at the Conference on New York State History last June. I noticed that Ross Levi didn’t mention this detail while speaking inside the bubble, nor did he reveal that the major contribution of the path Through History project was simply to brand what historic organizations were already doing as Path events.

There are several problems which the Tourism Advisory Council does not seem to grasp:

1. The Path weekend events are local in nature and generate virtually no heads-to-beds tourism. They primarily consist of day trips for local people visiting their local historic site for a few hours at most.

This information is significant given the information packet disseminated to the advocates on Tourism Advocacy Day. The Tourism Industry Coalition distributed a chart in dollars of the tourist tax contribution to each county arranged by regions. The Coalition uses 11 regions which do not match I LOVE NEW YORK, REDC, or NYSOPRHP divisions. The breakdowns provide the local taxes, the states taxes, and the tax-savings per household in each county to the show the economic impact of tourism. Here is the problem: the Path weekends contribute virtually nothing to these totals beyond local gas and lunch expenditures. That’s right: the signature event of the Path through History project generates almost no state or local taxes.

2. Some historic sites resent the last-minute “Simon Says” games of the Path through History. The Path weekends have shifted from the original Museum Weekend in May, to the first two weekends in June, and now to June 20-21. I received an e-mail notice on February 25th, but how complete is their e-mail list beyond the 350 attractions listed on the website?

Furthermore, it should be noted that organizations such as museums and historic sites make plans in advance: newsletters are sent, websites are updated, speakers invited, arrangements made. By the time people learn the date it may be too late to change to comply with the new dates. What’s more, some of the anniversaries which occur in early June and made the list last year can’t be shifted to make the list this year.

Why not just call June “Community Heritage Month” celebrating a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of community and knock off the obvious nonsense that the Path through History weekends contribute tax revenue from new events and it demonstrates the Governor’s support of history tourism?

MANY Conference

At the MANY conference Ross Levi had to bear the brunt of the Path questions due to the illness of Mark Castiligione, listed in the program as the Director of the Hudson River Valley Greenway and National Heritage Area (no mention of Path through History). Here are some observations:

1. During the Q&A, he was asked about the $1,000,000, Governor Cuomo pledged to the Path project at the kickoff on August 28, 2012. What happened to the money? How was it spent? Ross didn’t know.  Mark Castiligione may have been able to answer that question, although I doubt readers of the New York History Blog would have liked his answer. There is a lack of communication about the project, not to mention the lack of transparency and accountability. There also remains the question of why funds are not allocated annually to the Path project.

2. During the Q&A, it was pointed out again that no one works on the Path project full time.

3. After the Q&A, comments were made in private as to why the LGBT community was the only demographic group singled out for special attention. “What about African-Americans?” someone asked. One could also add various other demographic groups.

As it turns out, the person who really skewered the Albany-Manhattan bubble without intending to was Representative Paul Tonko. He receive the 2015 MANY Legislative Leadership Award, a first for the organization. He was recognized for his work on behalf of museum and cultural institutions in the state. In his acceptance comments, he spoke strongly and repeatedly on the importance of place. He emphasized the role and importance of historic and cultural institutions to the well-being and fabric of communities. He never spoke about tourism or singled out a specific demographic group.

So what does the Path project have to show after 2 ½ years?

1. No staff.
2. No paths or itineraries.
3. No tax revenue.

In the Albany-Manhattan bubble the Path through History is a great success; in the real world it scarcely exists. Unfortunately, the Albany-Manhattan bubble rules and there is no reason to be optimistic.

16 thoughts on “Inside New York State’s History Tourism Bubble

    1. Are you referring to the government state organizations, private statewide organizations, local private organizations, local municipal organizations…? There are a wide range of history organizations at the local and state level and private, municipal, state, and federal with volunteers, part-time, and full-time career people. Getting that community to work together has proved a challenge which has yet to be fulfilled.

    2. Peter,
      Thanks for all this important information. We have John Burroughs’ Slabsides here with a Path sign. I’ve not seen any other indication that a Path project exists (I am in Highland, NY, between NYC and Albany). We have many historic assets (in the real meaning of the word), but little attention is paid to them except by local organizations and what we add to County Tourism websites.

  1. Greetings:
    Please permit me to use this post as a platform to comment on two related Peter Feinman posts. The following paragraph appeared in his April 14th post titled: I Love New York And New York History.
    http://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2015/04/14/i-love-new-york-and-new-york-history/
    “Regular readers of The New York History Blog may recall that last summer the Historical Society of Rockland County took a bus trip to visit the historic sites in the Mohawk Valley. Could such trips also be offered to the historic sites of the state through the I Love NY Bus? Yes. Will they be? One wonders what the buses do in the summer.”

    This trip is again available for 2015. In 2014 HSRC and I co-organized this sold out trip. This trip demonstrated a successful strategy to combine history with entertainment. Saturday night’s destination was attendance at Drums Along the Mohawk Outdoor Drama by Walter D. Edmonds in Mohawk, NY. It may not be wine or skiing but it is a unique special event, one of the existing categories already being marketed by the I Love New York Bus. “Join us for unique New York State festivals and special events that happen all year round.”

    This is entertainment accessible only 15 minutes off Exit 30 of the NYS Thruway. I contend that the general traveling public would digest history more enthusiastically if it is presented in conjunction with this entertainment factor. Combining historical sites that directly relate to the people, places and events that played out in 1777 during our American Revolution provides a “softer” way to present history. By that I mean the way you serve history to a vacationer is by making the dish more palatable. A vacation for most people implies fun and relaxation, not studying for an exam as I am afraid too many people perceive the topic to be.
    …..and guess what? The stops we chose just happened to include some on the Path Through History and some that aren’t.

    I would like to offer my experience to the organizers of the I Love New York History Bus to help plan itineraries that bring people to the drama from both of their departure points: NYC and Long Island.

    My second comment refers to Mr. Feinman’s April 7th, 2015 post: Create Pathfinders In Your Region.
    http://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2015/04/07/peter-feinman-create-pathfinders-in-your-region/#more-14689
    Mr. Feinman explains: “I attended The New York Times Travel Show at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City in January, as a member of the press for The New York History Blog. I did so because there was an area set aside in the travel show for New York State displays/booths and the event included a special session, “Focus on New York State Destinations,” which turned out to be moderated by Tim Lewis, of Viator Inc.”
    “It didn’t take Tim long to identify the key weakness of the Path through History project: no one is working on creating itineraries which could be marketed or identifying the existing itineraries.”

    Mr. Feinman offered a solution. Create Pathfinders. He states: “As I envision them, Pathfinders would be responsible for creating sustainable Paths through History itineraries using local historical assets to broaden the reach of New York history as a tool for economic development for businesses, communities, education, and recreation.”

    I would like to propose that this is exactly what I am doing with this tour. These historical sites tell the story of one of the most pivotal international events in world history. It’s a New York story. It’s a New York Path Through History story. It’s a New York Path Through History story that can be repeated throughout the state. It’s a story. People relate to stories. It could be his story or her story but they both mean history. Entertainment generates revenue. If we combine the two in creative, collaborative and strategic ways, we will see improved visitation to our priceless historical resources and see revenue generated at the same time.

    “The Secret of Getting Ahead is Getting Started”. Mark Twain. We’ve started.
    “Don’t watch the clock; do what it does. Keep going”. Sam Levenson. We are moving toward a goal.
    Let’s get more people to contribute ways to lobby for this solution. More people like the following people. This weekend is a Revolutionary War conference at the Fort Plain Museum in Fort Plain, NY. Registration is through the roof. Sunday they are touring their visitors to 8 different Montgomery County Revolutionary War historic sites within only a few miles of each other. The first bus is full. They had to arrange for a second bus.
    The Mohawk Valley Path Through History team continues to be hard at work despite their lack of funding. Sounds like we can build some momentum off of this to me!

    If we do these things, the powers that want to see revenue generated, will begin to see it from this avenue. I will be a pathfinder. Who wants to join me?
    Kind regards,

    Kyle Jenks

    1. I am shortly headed for Fort Plain and the American Revolution that you mentioned. The Mohawk Valley team certainly is working hard to bring heritage tourists to the region through the conference and bus tour and it would be nice if I LOVE NY/Path through History support such efforts. Are you volunteering to be a path finder for the Mohawk Valley or do you wish to be paid?

  2. I have spent the last three years driving to Canada from NY to attend the wonderful events that were held there for the 1812 Anniversary. The effort put forth up there was fantastic! I can’t say enough about the 1812 Niagara Legacy Council, volunteers, museum staff, park rangers and living history re-enactors who put so much effort into the events. My family attended lectures, battles, living history camps, walks, ghost tours, and visited museums. I brought my wallet and we ate, shopped, spent 3-4 nights in hotels and enjoyed Canada’s parks. I was led to understand that there was no money to spend promoting any 1812 events here in NY.
    Not targeting certain demographic groups is certainly a mistake that there is no excuse for, and especially significant for what was paid out in the Path project.

    Glad to hear about the attendance at Fort Plain! It is thanks to all the volunteers who work unsung and unselfishly to keep history alive and promote it tirelessly, that NY’s small museums and history sites open.

  3. The museum I run is in a tucked-away corner of New York that seems to get ignored altogether, yet we have the D&H Canal, early film, Lenape, among other things, to offer people. I’ve never even seen how one applies to be part of “Path Through History” or any grant that one might received to help establish oneself as part of it. I do know about a tourism grant initiative that opened the other day, but as far as PTH is concerned, where does one go to get info and apply? I’ve never been able to get my hands on any literature or applications.

    1. Gretchen,

      I am forwarding your comment to the people at I Love NY/Path through History who can best answer how a site becomes part of the Path list.

    1. I am forwarding your request to the I Love NY/Path through History people who can best answer that.

  4. On Sunday, May 17th, from 11:00 AM – 3:30 PM at Locust Grove Estate in Poughkeepsie, Dutchess County, New York, an event called the Hudson Valley Heritage Fair will be held. An e-blast from the Greater Hudson Heritage Network provides the following invitation: “Come explore all that the region has to offer at the inaugural Hudson Valley Heritage Fair! With table displays from the top historical destinations in the region, living history presentations, and so much more! Don’t miss out on this chance to experience our region’s historic sites – all in one place! This event is FREE and open to the public!”

    In the first sentence, the comment is made that attendees will learn about “all that the region has to offer”. Yet, the second sentence refers to “top historical destinations in the region”. So which is it?

    As Region 3 Coordinator for the Association of Public Historians of New York State (which includes Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, and Westchester Counties – i.e., the Hudson Valley), I had first heard about this event through the minutes of a small group called “Mid-Hudson Historic Destinations” and not through any of the event organizers. I had tried to find out about having our municipal historians represented at this event. Many of us are working with historic sites, sometimes in cooperation with our local historical societies, sometimes on our own. I felt that if this event truly was to display ALL that the region has to offer, municipal historians and their associated sites should be represented.

    After several inquiries, I received the following description of the selection and communication process from the primary contact for Sunday’s event.

    “The Hudson Valley Heritage Fair is a project of the Hudson-Catskills Path Through History Region, in conjunction with the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area and New York State Parks. The region workgroup created an initial invite list based on sites and organizations with heritage tourism offerings, since that is Path Through History’s primary focus. When general registration was opened, the region’s county historians, all of whom have a seat on the region workgroup, were encouraged to circulate invitations amongst their constituents. We have had a good response from municipal historians acting in conjunction with their municipal historical societies.
    While we are well past the registration deadline now, should APHNYS Region 3 be interested in exhibiting at the Hudson Valley Heritage Fair, we would be happy to have you. Please find a registration form attached.”

    Of course, this invitation for APHNYS Region 3 to participate came much too late to reach out to the municipal historians throughout the region. And while the region’s county historians “were encouraged to circulate invitations amongst their constituents”, I had received no notification from my county historian about this event. I later learned that she had been on maternity leave.

    This explanation of the “trickle-down effect” might help those involved with smaller historic sites understand why they are not kept in the communication loop about opportunities to promote their site to the general public – particularly if one of the communication links is broken.

    Maybe next year’s Hudson Valley Heritage Fair truly can be billed as a chance to “explore all that the region has to offer”. Right now, it appears to be mainly the “top historical destinations” and invited guests.

    Suzanne Isaksen
    Town of Montgomery Historian (Orange County)
    APHNYS Region 3 Coordinator

    1. Suzanne,

      Thank you for your comment. It was good to see at the APHNYS meeting and in a post I submitted to New York History I included the phrase about the lack of respect for municipal historians.

      Coincidentally, I have just received the information about the event from the Dutchess County Tourism Department. It was sent to me not as a general distribution eblast or invitation but partially in response to an earlier post I had written about the absence of the Path through History at the New York Times Travel Show. Although I already knew about the event since I will be away at a history conference at Fort Ticonderoga I knew I would be unable to attend.

      The Mid-Hudson Historic Destinations is a new group with which I am not familiar. It has a Facebook page but it is difficult to determine who exactly is involved in it. The website provided is not a working one (yet) and a signin authorization appeared on the screen so perhaps it will be a membership group. There was a brown-bag lunch listed as a March event at the Harness Racing Museum in Goshen, Orange County, with 35 people invited and 4 attended. I presume neither of us were invited. The organization will be participating in the event so the information should be available at its display table.

      The people representing the organizations presenting this event all know about the New York History posts on the Path through History which I have written. I have met and spoken with all of them so I like to think had had some impact on the genesis of the event.

      It is probably best to consider a good first step to promoting local tourism, i.e, people in the region visiting the historic destinations in the region that will be offering programs in the Ramble come September. Can the program be improved? Yes. Should fairs be held in other counties? Yes. Should municipal historians be involved? Yes. Is there an “A” group as in high school? Yes. Will there be any paths or itineraries promoted at the event? Possibly since some county tourist departments will be present. Is it still worth pursuing? Yes. Does it make sense for the history community leaders to meet regionally? Yes. Should this group take the lead in promoting history applications to the regional REDC? Yes. Should this be done in all regions? Yes.

      Let’s give them credit for trying and recognize the need for improvement. The annual meeting of the Greater Hudson Heritage Network would provide an excellent venue for addressing these issues.

  5. A reader whom I know personally but who wishes to remain anonymous submitted this comment:

    “I just finished reading your latest post; another excellent job. While I was initially encouraged by the idea, the Path Through History is a political paper lion that will likely disappear immediately upon the governor’s exit from Albany. It is illustrative of the chasm between his office–which touts the state’s history as a major attraction–and those who actually grasp the challenges facing the field. While our diversity may be a strength it is also our weakness.

    Imposing a new brand without addressing the underlying issues affecting the field is the classic ‘lipstick on a pig’ treatment, which is a big part of why I no longer participate in the PTH effort. The hypocrisy of putting the history community on a pedestal while showing little interest in facilitating positive change, and promoting unity, really bugs me. All of this made the appearance of new PTH road signs for our facility, several months after I left the Path planning group, quite surprising! I was never informed that the signs were going up and first saw them just like anyone else does, driving down the road. For the record, the signs have had no impact on our attendance, but it’s nice to know that they are there.

    I think the LGBT effort is being pushed primarily because it is trendy to do so right now. Maybe marijuana tourism is next.”

    1. The problem with your analysis is that the while the Path project may disappear when the current governor exits or be vastly improved, since he already is preparing for this third term and has no where else to go once he stops being governor, that the history community in New York is likely to be stuck with this non-project for years to come. That’s why there is no reason to be optimistic.

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