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Telling a “Nationally Significant Story”

Telling a “Nationally Significant Story”

Each month as The Heritage Tourist this year I get to take you to one of the 49 National Heritage Areas (NHAs) around the USA where historical, cultural and natural elements have been woven into a ‘nationally significant story’ using local sites in a multi-county region in one or more states. Each of the 49 NHAs was created from a grassroots, local effort and generally by a successful private-public partnership of some kind (each is distinctive, if not unique) that combines divergent individual sites into a meaningful working whole. The aspect of each of the NHAs that holds it together and ‘makes it real’ is the concept of ‘nationally significant story.’ I want to share some thoughts with you today about that process.

I’ve personally played (very) small roles in the attempted development of three different NHA ‘stories.’ One eventually became successful while the other two did not – yet. A critical process in the development of a National Heritage Area (NHA) is ‘getting to’ that acceptable ‘nationally significant story.’ It is an iterative process that is at the same time exhilarating and excruciating. Which local parties are included at which stage in the process can be a make-or-break, critical set of decisions that, honestly, can not be foreseen – they can only be endured, adjusted, and ‘made do with’ as the process continues toward fruition. This is why some ‘outside’ party, a consultant, a historian at a university, someone from a successful NHA, a respected political figure, may be needed to conclude this process, at some point. It will always take multiple attempts, so do not try to simplify the process. Eventually, all local parties will need to accept the agreed on story, even if they are uncomfortable with certain aspects of the details of the story.

Even at what might seem a late point in the process, it may be necessary to bring in additional counties, an additional natural area, or to leave some out, in order to get to the best available ‘nationally significant story’ for a successful NHA. The successful story will have three to five sub-stories, generally, that incorporate all the elements with the proposed NHA. The National Park Service has created guidelines, but each story will be unique and must be developed locally. The stories of other NHAs should be reviewed for form and content, but, each NHA must develop their distinctive story. It is a challenge, but, working together, it can be done. It has been done, successfully, 49 times. Will yours be next?

And, of course, the development of the ‘nationally significant story’ must occur at the same time as each of the other elements of a successful NHA, the management plan, the area designation, the funding model, and so forth. Do you have an area you believe would be a good NHA? Please feel free to leave your comment.

About TheHeritageTourist

Dr. Bill Smith is the author of The Heritage Tourist, a monthly column in The In-Depth Genealogist which focuses on the social context of travel and history when applied to our genealogy. He can be found blogging at Dr. Bill Tells Ancestor Stories. Dr. Smith is also author and creator of "The Homeplace Saga" series of historical family stories (currently four books) set in a rural community in the southern Missouri Ozarks, drawn from his family history and genealogy passions and life experiences.
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