That is a big question and I don’t claim to be privy to the inner sanctum of the Albany decision-makers or to the workings of Cuomo’s mind.
What follows then is a speculation on my part.
1. I think Cuomo is genuinely sincere in his desire to increase tourism to New York State, especially upstate where he frequently vacations.
2. I think Cuomo is genuinely sincere in his desire to include the historic sites of New York State in his efforts to increase tourism in New York State.
Pulling $60,000,000 out of thin air is nothing to sneeze about. That is real money.
That being said, why did he follow the path he did in trying to help in these two areas?
1. The first problem is that the history community is not part of the decision-making in this effort. It does not have a seat at the table. It is a weak, divided, fractured, impotent community of numerous entities each doing its own thing, trying to survive, and with no state history community vision to guide it. Even though there are statewide organizations both public or private, there is no individual or council addressing the history community as a whole. No one has the job of seeing the big picture for history in New York. Despite the dream-team Path through History kickoff with Ken Jackson delivering the plenary and Harold Holzer the luncheon address, they are not critical players in the Path project. The bottom line is that no one is speaking to Cuomo on behalf of the state history community.
Following the recent state tourism summit, MANY/Museumwise defined the challenge facing the state museum community in a recent e-blast to its members which are one portion of the state history community.
We have defined a challenge for New York State’s museum community to work together to clearly convey what the State’s museums, heritage organizations, zoos, botanical gardens and aquariums do; your value and your impact. We applaud those who have taken the lead and invite others to take the initiative; welcome the invitation; and come to the table during regional and statewide discussions and planning sessions for educational initiatives, economic development and tourism initiatives. We want to be – and need to be – an active part of the educational, economic development, and tourism conversations taking place at every level in our state.
Who are the people who are going to meet this challenge, take the initiative, attend the relevant meetings, at least those which are really useful? Do they have the time? What regional meetings? Certainly not the Path meetings. How many historical societies are part of MANY/Museumwise out of the total state population anyway? If an historical society doesn’t have a building/museum, then where are they represented?. And of course this effort also needs to be done with the municipal historians, scholars, teachers, archaeologists, genealogists in the public and private sectors. I write this not to criticize MANY/Museumwise for its effort but to point out the daunting challenge of speaking on behalf of only one group within the state history community yet alone all of them.
2. The second problem is the deceptive data on tourism. People love to bandy about the tens of millions visitors to New York State, the billions of dollars they spend, and the thousands of jobs they create especially in Manhattan. While this is quite true it has very little to do with cultural heritage tourism or the visits to historic sites. The fact is that the biggest boon to tourism in Rochester would be for Xerox and Kodak to become Fortune 500 companies again. The fact is the biggest boon to tourism in Syracuse is for the University there to be a national power in college football and basketball. Note: Cuomo is creating a NYS Sports and Special Events Commission as part of the $60,000,000 push. But that is not history tourism. On the other hand, the Chicago Cubs want to build a hotel by Wrigley Field, the third-most-popular tourist attraction in the entire state of Illinois. Since Wrigley Field turns 100 next year, perhaps that does qualify as history tourism. Bronx Borough President Reuben Diaz seeks to build a hotel and convention center at Yankee Stadium. If an historic opera house where Houdini, George Burns, and the Marx brothers once performed becomes the Bronx Opera House Hotel is that historic tourism?
The fact is that the biggest decrease to tourism in Manhattan would be if NYU, Columbia, the UN, and Wall Street relocated, there was no Broadway theater and no world-class shopping. The sad reality is that even the airline staff who stay over in New York represent a larger number of tourists in the state definition than most communities in the state receive.
Manhattan isn’t the only magnet for shopper tourists. Woodbury Common also is a tourist draw. “We have customers that literally fly into JFK, get in a cab and go directly to the outlets, fillup their luggage and return home again” said Danielle DeVita, SVP in real estate. Others come by bus from Port Authority. Others drive from Canada. Not to worry; they will have the historic tourist experience. In the remodeling of Woodbury Common, each shopping area will be named for a different area in New York State such as the Hamptons and the Adirondacks. Then the people cabbing from JFK, busing from the Port Authority, and driving from Canada can really be counted as tourists to the historic areas of the state!
Besides Cuomo not hearing from the history community, the information he is hearing from the tourist industry is deceiving when it comes to the historic sites. The international tourist isn’t here to learn about William Johnson or the Burnt Over District or the state’s role in the Civil War, War of 1812, American Revolution, or French and Indian War, anniversary events the State minimally funded if at all anyway.
So unfortunately we do know from recent experience that the State has not been there when the history community needed it. In a post on this site in January 2012, entitled Lessons From the French and Indian War Commission, historian for the Town of Saratoga and Village of Victory Sean Kelleher wrote about the state vetoes of funding for these anniversaries. He quoted Cuomo as writing in a veto message:
“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.”
$350,000 annually for four years was too much! The Regional Economic Development Councils will be the vehicle through which the history community should operate. How has that worked out so far?
Kelleher then provided three reasons why the vetoes were shortsighted all of which are true.
1. Commemorations are huge heritage tourism events with measurable returns.
2. It takes the power of the State of NY to leverage funds and create partnerships.
3. Commemoration Commissions need to be more than just events.
He ended with a paraphrase from a Patterson veto calling for the same vision in education, civics, and community that I have been singing the praises for in my own posts:
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.
3. The third problem is that the tourists Cuomo is interested in not only aren’t visiting the historic sites of the state, they are not the visitors the historic sites want either. The historic sites in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx, Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester don’t need visitors from California, Pennsylvania, nearby New Jersey, or from around the world to visit them; they need the millions of people in their own backyard to do so. To do so in school field trips, to do so as families, to do so as adult volunteers and members.
This is even more true upstate. Historic sites should be an integral part of each and every community in the state. They should be part of the k-12 curriculum, they should be part of civic identity of the community, they should be as much a part of the fabric of the community as the high school sports teams and drama clubs. Historic sites like libraries and schools are regulated by the New York State Education Department but unlike libraries and schools, the historic sites are not funded by them. They are always overlooked. Imagine what $60,000,000 could do to help the history community if it was spent on them! Instead a measly $1,000,000 will be parceled out statewide while the advertising companies gorge on the feast provided by the Governor.
The typical historic site is not the Metropolitan Museum or the New-York Historical Society. These organizations have blockbuster exhibitions. Exhibitions bring crowds. Conferences are held in conjunction with the exhibition. New York State Military Museum just opened a Civil War exhibit to high praise. I have brought teachers to Saratoga, including from out of state. We have stayed in motels and eaten in restaurants. I spoken with the staff about the travails of getting the financial support the Museum should have. How much of the $60,000,000 is dedicated to supporting history exhibitions and conferences that could draw tourists?
The typical historic site is not the Metropolitan Museum or the New-York Historical Society. They were built as museums, not as private homes or other structures which became one. Many of the historic sites which are not open 24/7 or even 7, depend on the kindness of volunteers and lack the facilities including staff to handle a significant increase in traffic. The infrastructure simply isn’t there. I know first hand the difficulty in creating a path through history when sites are not open on various days or only for limited hours on the days when they are opened. Scheduling a trip for a week to small sites is a challenge. In the real world of historical societies and museums the situation is quite different from the major museums of the cities of the state. How much of the $60,000,000 is dedicated to supporting the history society infrastructure so it is capable of handling more visitors?
The typical historic site is not the Metropolitan Museum or the New-York Historical Society. In fact, it’s very existence may be threatened. The Mamaroneck Historical Society is struggling for the funding to purchase the home where famed New York State writer James Fenimore Cooper was married and lived. How about the Underground Railroad house of Stephen and Harriet Myers, 194 Livingston Avenue, Albany, not far from the Executive Mansion! How many similar examples are there throughout the state of private efforts to save historic sites? How much of the $60,000,000 is dedicated to funding the preservation of the sites which define the community, the state, or the country?
And the situation is even worse with municipal historians who are mandated by the state, unfunded, and frequently barely tolerated by municipalities as long as they don’t cost any money or cause nay trouble. To redefine the position, especially at the county level to be a proactive one working with the schools, tourist department, and business development department requires funding. How much of the $60,000,000 is dedicated to funding the municipal historian positions throughout the state?
There is nothing wrong with touting the recreational opportunities in the state and showcasing our grapes through billboards and posters at the bus stops and in the subways of New York City, but that is not history tourism. What we have is a Governor who has a interest in history, who thought he could do something to solve some real problems, but without learning from the weak, divided, impotent, leaderless history community what the real problems are and stumbled into a standard government solution of throwing money at the problem to the established players who are well organized and who do speak up. The Path through History has potential to be something really special, so much so that it hurts to see it become just a statewide Hudson Valley Ramble.