Culture, tourism, placemaking and economic development are four concepts that belong together. Good public policy requires thinking strategically about their interrelatedness.
Despite being one of only six states with abundant, on-the-ground and archival evidence of the full sweep of the American story from the Puritan migration forward — plus another 10,000 years of Native American history — Connecticut is not a major tourism destination. Because of that, the economic incentive to care for what we have is less insistent. We're not seeing that preservation, culture and tourism are mutually dependent.
2014 presents an opportunity to rethink all this.
We have at least four important anniversaries this year — the 400th of Adriaen Block being the first European to discover and navigate Long Island Sound and the Connecticut River; the 250th of the founding of The Hartford Courant; the 200th for the Hartford Convention; and the 150th of the founding of The Travelers insurance company by James Batterson.
Anniversaries are opportunities to reflect on who we are, what we've achieved and the stories that give meaning to our senses of place, past and community. More important, this cluster of anniversaries could be an opportunity to reflect on why cultural tourism matters to a state and region that has, over the years, practically invited its neighbors to eclipse us, when Connecticut's claims to attention and influence are just as clear, strong and distinctive. If we don't take our side, who will?
In a recent interview, Steven Thorne, a Canadian "place-based cultural tourism planner" talked about his work at destination planning and how "cultural tourism is not well understood" and that "opportunities abound, but are mostly unrealized." Even when tourism officials think beyond star attractions, they still often miss "sense of place" and what's involved in developing and promoting whole places. They overlook places that have a distinctive sense of place but no big star attraction, or they overlook the supporting cast in places that do have star attractions.
Thorne further notes that "sense of place is what cultural travelers most value. They want to discover what's distinctive, authentic and memorable about a destination — which includes the destination's attractions, of course — but also includes the destination's history and heritage, its narratives and stories, its landscape, its townscape, its people."
The good news is that, over the past decade, the various state agencies involved in culture and tourism in Connecticut were joined in a single agency. In theory the preservationists, tourism officials and arts and heritage interests are now a team! This was a legacy of Gov. John G. Rowland. More recently Gov. Dannel P. Malloy went further by appointing one of the nation's leading champions of placemaking — Kip Bergstrom — to oversee this effort. Structure and vision are more aligned than they've ever been to achieve results.
It remains, however, a work in progress because many of the old and vestigial assumptions, budget line items and job descriptions are still in place. More money rarely being an option — how about spending what we have more strategically? A small state like Connecticut needs only one state-funded tourism, arts or heritage agency. It would puzzle a fiend to know why we need multiple state-funded arts councils, preservation groups and tourism districts tripping over one another for attention and support.
Then there are political budget earmarks that enable a very few privileged causes to that step to the head of the line. Its bad policy that pits political haves against the hundreds of worthy have-nots. It gets in the way of the placemaking/destination development work we need to do if we want to compete.
If I had a magic wand there'd be a "race to the top" program designed to undertake model projects in destination planning and development — in places like East Haddam, New London, greater Litchfield — anywhere that has the right stuff, the local leadership and the desire to succeed.
We now have an agency that gets it and is blazing trails nationally with progressive, sophisticated, placemaking rhetoric. To the degree we match resources and structures with aspirations, Connecticut will have more competitive cultural tourism destinations to remind the 1001 cultural treasures we have underfoot here that they matter.
William Hosley of Enfield founded and administers "Creating Sense of Place for Connecticut," a Facebook community.