Opinion

OPINION

Culture and History — a Platform for Growth

Springfield’s rich history, combined with the national surge in cultural tourism, can be a key element in the city’s economic renewal. Other Massachusetts cities using historical resources have successfully become tourist destinations: Salem explores its witchcraft trials; Lowell tells the human tale of its extensive mills.

Based on the recognition that historical assets are valuable for the economic future of communities, a new concept has emerged — cultural heritage tourism. The National Trust for Historic Preservation defines cultural heritage tourism as “traveling to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present,” and notes that “cultural heritage travelers stay longer and spend more money than other kinds of travelers. Good cultural heritage tourism improves the quality of life for residents, as well as serving visitors.”

Springfield has many assets to support this kind of tourism — an abundance of architecturally and historically significant buildings, a wealth of famous individuals associated with the city, a rich storehouse of records and artifacts in museums and libraries. Moreover, many events from Springfield’s past illustrate major themes in American history:

  • Springfield, founded by puritans in 1636, was greatly damaged by the Wampanoag Confederation in 1675 during King Philip’s War;
  • Daniel Shays’ rebellion in 1787 demonstrated the need for a strong federal constitution, and propelled the convening of the Constitutional Convention;
  • The technological innovations developed at Springfield Armory spread in a precision manufacturing corridor from Vermont to Connecticut, and made possible the mass production of goods;
  • The courageous involvement of Springfield’s citizens in the anti-slavery movement made the city a significant stop for the Underground Railroad;
  • Automobiles, motorcycles, and airplanes were partially invented or popularized here;
  • Weapons developed at Springfield Armory contributed to the outcomes of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
  • Springfield has already made a solid start in burnishing and presenting its past, through discovery tours, the growing Museum of Springfield History and the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum, and other venues. However, more can and should be done to build Springfield into a major cultural destination.

To develop heritage tourism, the National Trust recommends that communities follow these principles:

  • Collaborate: Much more can be accomplished by working together than by working alone. Successful programs bring together partners who may not have worked together in the past;
  • Find the fit: Balancing the needs of residents and visitors is important to ensure that cultural heritage tourism benefits everyone. It is important to understand the kind and amount of tourism that a community can handle;
  • Make sites and programs come alive: Competition for time is fierce. To attract visitors, a community or region must be sure that the destination is worth the drive;
  • Focus on quality and authenticity: Quality is an essential ingredient for all cultural heritage tourism, and authenticity is critical whenever heritage or history is involved; and
  • Preserve and protect: A community’s cultural, historic, and natural resources are valuable and often irreplaceable.
    So, what are the next steps for Springfield?
  • Call together stakeholders to discuss the future of cultural heritage tourism in Springfield. Participants should include major institutional representatives and city officials, as well as other interested parties;
  • Take an inventory of the cultural and historical assets of the city — an important step necessary for further action. This inventory should be sent to the individuals and organizations of step one;
  • Examine successful cultural heritage efforts in small cities similar to Springfield. Much can be learned from their experiences; and
  • Develop a plan for collaboration and further activity. A critical issue will be leadership: who will provide that important ingredient that will lead to further progress?

Ira H. Rubenzahl is the president of Springfield Technical Community College;[email protected]; (413) 755-4424.

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