In the past decade, the New York State Legislature desired to create three anniversary commemoration commissions. The Commissions were necessary to bring together persons qualified by experience to coordinate and facilitate commemorations and activities.
In 2002 and 2004, the Hudson – Fulton- Champlain Quadricentennial Commission, and the French and Indian War 250th Anniversary Commemoration Commission (FIW) were created. In the past three years, three bills to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812 (1812) with a Commission have been vetoed by Governors Patterson and Andrew Cuomo.*
Last year, Governor Coumo wrote in his veto message of the War of 1812 Commission that “Although cultural and historical tourism is an important industry, the Commission’s activities are estimated to cost the State over $350,000 annually, and $1.4 million over the lifetime of the Commission. I believe that the goals of this bill would be better suited to be considered in a more comprehensive manner by the Regional Economic Development Councils.”
I was fortunate to serve the State as an Commissioner for the FIW Commission. I find it disappointing that two Governors decided to veto the 1812 Commissions. Below are my three lessons after serving on the FIW Commission.
1. Commemorations are huge heritage tourism events with measurable returns
The FIW Commission was charged in part with commemorating 7 events over 5 years. The State appropriation for the Commission was $350,000 over the 5 years (about $70,000 a year). The actual economic impact of the FIW Commission was in excess of $9 million dollars. This is a return on investment (ROI) for the State of New York of $25.71 for every $1.00 spent. (As way of comparison, an Ernst & Young study prepared for the NYS Governors Office of Motion Picture and Television Development and the Motion Picture Association of America reported that the 30% production tax credit program generated NYS and NYC a ROI of $1.90 for every $1.00 invested in tax credits). An added benefit was that the FIW events were held in some of the most “hardest-pressed” regions of the State.
2. It takes the power of the State of NY to leverage funds and create partnerships.
The FIW Commission was able to leverage in excess of $350,000 in match money ($1 match for every NYS $1). There were over a 100 different organizations that partnered with the FIW Commission including NYS DEC and OPRHP. Over 200 teachers were trained in how to teach the French and Indian War in their classroom through the Living History Education Foundation. Two major academic symposiums, an educational poster, and 2 books were sponsored by the FIW Commission. The FIW Commission legacy project was a partnership with the State Library to digitizing the Sir William Johnson Papers. This was all possible because of the strength of the FIW Commission. That is why a Commission is so important. The majority of the FIW Commissioners were reenactors (11 out of 19) rather than some Commissions where appointments are based on access to money or power. The FIW Commission never had a chairperson that made a meeting. The FIW Commissioners were unpaid volunteers working hard for the commemoration in partnership with some hard working staff members of I Love New York program. The FIW Commission lacked administrative support and at times had a hostile relationship with the Economic Development agency. Despite these obstacles, the FIW Commission was able to create amazing success for the State at a very low cost.
3. Commemoration Commissions need to be more than an events.
These anniversaries are an opportunity to create awareness about the rich history in NYS. However, the enabling legislation for FIW and 1812 Commission does not recognize the need to develop and enhance infrastructure to maximize the opportunity to grow cultural and historical tourism. Commemorations focused only on one weekend events is not a sustainable model for the economic growth of communities. Seven years ago, the FIW Commission started a partnerships with the Seaway Trail – Scenic Byway tourism promotion (including Lakes to Locks Passage, and Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor), the I Love NY summer festival (through Warren County), and the French and Indian War Heritage Trail (though Heritage NY). It is sad that many of partnering organizations in infrastructure development have not survived recent budget tightening.
These commemorations are more than balance sheet ROI. However, if the State were to measure its return, these commemorations do stand up to all economic programs. But these commemorations are much more, to paraphrase the veto message for the 1812 Commission from Governor Patterson, “if we fail to appreciate the rich heritage and historical significance that contribute to the identity and character of our State, we loosen the ties that hold us together. If we fail to teach our children the lessons of yesterday, we do not equip them to understand the world of today and to prepare for the world of tomorrow.”
To learn more about history of commemoration, the National Park Service has published History, Memory, and Monuments: An Overview of the Scholarly Literature on Commemoration (2006) by Kirk Savage, University of Pittsburgh.
* In 2009, 2010, and 2012 the Assembly passed bills to create a New York State Civil War 150th Anniversary Commemoration Commission that died in the Senate. To learn more about the State’s efforts to commemorate the Sesquicentennial please visit http://www.nycivilwar150.org/
Sean Kelleher is the Historian for the Town of Saratoga and Village of Victory in the Upper Hudson Valley. He has a particular interest in colonial history, being active as a reenactor for 34 years and has served as a Commissioner on the New York State French and Indian War 250th Anniversary Commemoration Commission.