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NYS History Fail: A Better Connecticut Example

June 6th and June 20th weekends offer two contrasting perceptions of how to celebrate the history of New York State. These two weekends highlight fundamental problems with New York State’s approach to state heritage and makes clear that the state of Connecticut demonstrates greater leadership and a more profound understanding of its history community.

By the June 6th weekend historic sites have awakened from the winter hibernation, dusted away the cobwebs, slapped on a new coat of paint, and are ready for the summer season. It should be no surprise then that there were many events scheduled for that weekend.  All of those events, if they had been scheduled at the same time last year, they would have qualified for New York State’s Path through History Weekend, but this year they don’t.

In some cases June 6th weekend events may be regularly scheduled events held on the first weekend in June. With others, organizers may have guessed that the Path weekends would remain the same (they didn’t).

Funding for the events held on the June 6th weekend came from the organizations themselves, local efforts, and/or the New York Council for the Humanities. Multiple local organizations collaborated in the presentation of some of the programs held over the June 6th weekend, and a few involve multiple locations.

The local and regional nature of these events serve as a reminder that there is a difference between the civic and community mission of the local historical communities and the tourist destination mantra of the state’s tourism officials. It’s not that one is right and the other is wrong, but that each should have its place.

Once upon a time New York State understood this. New York Heritage Weekend began in 2011 (following the 2009 Hudson Quadricentennial). At that time, the selected weekend was in mid-May. It’s stated purpose was to “showcase the Empire State’s rich history and cultural heritage to residents and visitors alike while helping to kick off the summer tourism season.”

Notice the mention of residents reflecting the reality that attendees would be local. There was no suggestion of overnight lodging or generating tax revenue so common with New York State’s history efforts today.  In 2009, organizations were even invited to participate in Heritage Weekend by entering events on a new website. The instructions and procedures are remarkably similar to the current Path through History website.

The spirit of community heritage evident in the New York Heritage Weekend Program lives on outside the Path through History program. This past May, Dutchess County, the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Greater Hudson Heritage Network, and Locust Grove, sponsored a one-day event for historic sites and organizations in “the Hudson Valley-Catskills” (the Mid-Hudson Path through History region, which includes Sullivan County). The theme for the fair was: “Hands-On History.” Discover what’s in your own backyard! Get some great ideas for summer daytrips!

The terms “backyard” and “daytrips” both suggest local visitors, something that is seemingly at odds with the ostensible purpose of Path through History program: generating tourism (and tax) revenue. Will Tatum, the Dutchess County historian and chair of the Mid-Hudson Path region, stated the May event’s purpose:

This event offers a unique opportunity for area residents and visitors from across the region to sample our 400 years of shared history. We’re delighted to welcome sites and organizations from throughout our region, especially those traveling from Sullivan County.

Notice the local and regional focus, again contrary to the approach of the Path program. This initiative is a reminder that people in the real world and those in Albany-Manhattan bubble operate in two different realities.

In practice the event turned out to be primarily a showcase of Dutchess County historical organizations, NYSOPRHP sites, and Sullivan County Parks. This is part of the challenge in promoting regional activities given the size of region.

Dutchess County then highlighted the shortcomings of the Path through History program by scheduling Dutchess Heritage Days on June 13 and 14! Last year that would have qualified as a Path event. This year it is a tree falling in the woods with no one at the Path project to hear it.

Are events on June 6-7 worthy of state recognition, even when they are not part of the Path weekend? What about June 13-14? Why does the state body count exclude them? Where is the state support anyway? There is no pool off funds in the Regional Economic Development Council funding set aside for Path programs. Why not?

There is a better way. Connecticut is just starting the “Good to Great Pilot Grant Program”. According to its guidelines:

The Department of Economic and Community Development seeks applications which look beyond basic facilities repair or expansion towards new means of telling the stories of our cultural sites in engaging, meaningful, and relevant ways. We are prioritizing funding for collaborative projects which demonstrate a clear vision of how individual sites and organizations can effectively tie together local, regional or statewide cultural assets.

DECD anticipates award of up to $2 million under this pilot program. We further expect to award 75% of the total available funds for project proposals submitted by small- to medium-sized organizations.

Connecticut will spend $2 million on local history organizations to develop paths through history, to tell Connecticut’s story. By contrast New York sets aside no money for that purpose. Connecticut’s state budget is approximately $20 billion annually versus New York’s $140 billion. This seven-times differential means New York State would have to budget $14 million to match Connecticut’s commitment.

Will New York State ever recognize the importance of community heritage in an addition to destination tourism? Will New York State ever learn how to do a better job supporting cultural heritage? Will New York State ever put its money where its advertising mouth is? Will New York State ever catch up to Connecticut in supporting paths through history? Don’t hold your breath.

 

5 thoughts on “NYS History Fail: A Better Connecticut Example

  1. Museum Weekend in Clinton County has been the first weekend in June for many years – this year 16 organizations participated. Entrance fees are waived and special events occur at most sites. We are encouraging our neighboring counties to join us. And we have to thank our local newspapers and Chamber of Commerce for giving their 100% support each year.

  2. Peter,

    We missed you at Niagara University this past week for the Conference on NYS History.
    Your discussion today hits the proverbial “nail on the head” perfectly.
    It highlights the perfect nonsense that surrounds the current “PTH” promotional exercise.

    As past president of one of the major historical agencies here in Wayne County,
    I can say that we initiated one of the first, if not the first, festivals in the region.
    Our Homecoming Festival has been running for 70 years and has always been scheduled on the 3rd Saturday in July.
    Today there are numerous events and festivals throughout the region and here in Wayne County.
    Many even happen on the 3rd Saturday in July. When this first happened, I was incensed to say the least.
    Today, it is just the way things are….there are only so many prime summer weekends to choose from.
    A major point is…we couldn’t all “do our thing” on the same weekend because our handful of local marching bands march in each of our parades so we need to spread the weekend wealth around.

    In our case, Homecoming means that former residents of Pultneyville return and children and grandchildren also return.
    It is a real life participatory event….our son and son in law love running in the 5K that supports the local school French Club….often they do the run pushing one of the grandchildren in a fast stroller.
    There are really fun things to do all day and into the night.

    We would never entertain the idea of changing the date…..the whole world (that matters) knows when Homecoming will be and sets their calendars around that 3rd weekend in July.
    And this is true for many other events and festivals around the area. Yes, it is also history centered.
    Museums are open, there are house and church tours and hamlet walking tours along with themed parade.
    I could go on at length but you get the point.

    Almost nothing about NYS Tourism or I Love NY supports any of the festivals, events or history centered organizations here in Wayne County.
    To be fair, there are probably two or three of our larger museum agencies that make a serious attempt to piggy-back on the “PTH” Weekend Program just to be able to say that they did so.

    The discussion around the coming REDC funding year will be key to see if there is any new effort to include the small to medium size organization that may not be open and staffed everyday.
    How will the 2 million be spread around this year?

    All the best,
    Peter

  3. Speaking celebratory-wise, Suffolk County is alive & well, but of course, things could be doing much better. There are the twin forks of Long Island having their competitive 375th anniversary celebrations in the towns of Southold and Easthampton. In my neck of the woods, Mastic Neck, we celebrated Tri-Hamlet Day on June 6th, featuring the William Floyd Estate, The Manor of St. George and the grave of Gen. Nathanial Woodhull. Almost everything is done at the grass-roots level, with little or no help from our friends in Albany.

    Zak

  4. Why can’t the State set aside the entire month of June to celebrate Path through History? That way every event in every community for every weekend in June gets PR support from the PATH website. It seems like the logical solution. It sure makes planning a tad less problematic for all communities in the state.

    1. You are exactly right. In previous posts, I have suggested that June be designated Community Heritage Month since that is the time when these local events are held throughout the state. Since the tourist season involving people staying over in lodging doesn’t begin until after the school year ends meaning the July 4th weekend, it would make more sense to promote Paths through History during July and August when people actually go on vacation. Of course, I Love NY would have to create itineraries or paths or identify the ones which exist, precisely what has not occurred since the Path project began in 2012.

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