New Jersey Struggles to Capitalize on Its Historic Past

Joe Tyrrell | September 10, 2012 | More Issues
Given New Jersey's rich historic heritage, tourism could be more than the Jersey Shore

This is the first article in a two-part series on heritage tourism.

When officials gathered last month in an attempt to get more attention for a Revolutionary War site, they were swimming against the tide of recent history.

Despite the lingering effects of the recession, tourism remains big business in New Jersey. The Garden State accounted for $38 billion of the nation’s $1.2 trillion tourism revenues last year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

That total made tourism New Jersey’s third-largest industry, behind pharmaceuticals and chemicals. With more than 900,000 tourists, New Jersey was America’s ninth most-visited state, according to the World Travel Association.

Even before the economic downturn, though, many involved with “heritage tourism” were concerned about some trends in how travelers view art and history.

“Fifteen years ago, even 10, when we would have a Victorian house tour, people would be lining up around the block,” said Michael Zuckerman, director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities in Cape May. “That is no longer the case.”

“The interests of visitors do change,” said Amy Webb, director of heritage tourism for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “People are perhaps less interested today in looking at objects on a pedestal.”

The Tourism Crisis

Where Zuckerman sees “a crisis in heritage tourism,” many county or regional tourism offices around the state are trumpeting history and culture in their promotional materials. And small museums and arts centers are looking for financial help to increase their hours and visitors.

So it was prescient that the New Jersey Historic Trust commissioned a task force report in 2010 to develop a plan to reposition the state’s historical and cultural attractions in a changing marketplace.

The task force found that over the years, New Jersey has struggled to promote itself, often spending less than other states and without a coherent “branding” strategy. Leadership suffered as the state Division of Travel and Tourism was shuffled among departments, often under directors with little experience in the field, the report said.

Since then, though, the division has been selected to migrate again, this time from the Department of State to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. Gov. Chris Christie took that recommendation from a seven-member advisory commission, which unsurprisingly included two former NJSEA executives and two representatives of the YES Network.

The 2010 plan did highlight some positive steps, such as the establishment of destination marketing organizations to promote tourism in many parts of the state, as well as a new national heritage area, “The Crossroads of the American Revolution,” to link sites small and large. The Millstone Valley and portions of the Delaware Valley also have received federal grants under National Scenic Byways program.

Yet even the establishment of a hotel tax in 2003, a stable source of tourism funding in about half the states, has yielded mixed results here.

The law allots percentages of the tax to support tourism, arts and history, and also sets minimum dollar amounts: $22.7 million should go to arts, $12.7 million to tourism, $3.8 million to the New Jersey Historic Commission, and $720,000 to the New Jersey Cultural Trust.

Raiding the Budget

But loose legislative language and creative budgeting have seen the funds raided for other purposes, and those floors have turned into ceilings. Although annual receipts from the tax have increased by about one-third, to more than $85 million, the recipients are getting about one-third less than their supposed minimum shares.

“Given that New Jersey’s historic sites have been underfunded for decades, this continued lack of financial support and commitment hinders the state’s potential to capitalize on heritage tourism as a viable industry segment,” said the report.

Perhaps it was both understandable and wishful that the task force laid out steps to increase tourism revenues that require up-front spending. The plan’s recommendations to reopen closed sites, expand operating hours, add exhibits and, increase staff training have largely gone unheeded.

The Division of Travel and Tourism and the New Jersey Travel Industry Association had little or nothing to say about the plan, which “is not something we use in our everyday jobs,” according to tourism spokeswoman Jennifer Stringfellow. They referred repeated calls about heritage tourism in general to other organizations.

Celebrating New Jersey

In some ways, celebrating New Jersey’s past should be an easy task. After all, as one of America’s oldest and most populous states, it has been home to many notable people, places and events.

And there are business opportunities. A 2009 study commissioned by the commerce department and industry groups indicated that cultural and heritage travelers are more heavily invested in their experience than are other tourists.

On average, they take 20 percent more trips and spend 60 percent more on each than other leisure travelers, according to the report by Mandala Research of Alexandria, Va. The state plan envisaged capturing more of those dollars.

While those in the field have argued their case, “I wouldn’t say that as of yet, there is a heritage tourism advocate” able to influence state policies, said Leslie Bensley, executive director of the Morris County Tourism Bureau, who served on the task force.

“Unfortunately, we have not felt any effects whatsoever” from the state plan, said Zuckerman, another task force member.

“No, I haven’t seen anything, there haven’t been any effects from that” plan, said Judy Ross, director of the Meadowland Liberty Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Like many similar organizations, Meadowlands Liberty is an offshoot of a regional chamber of commerce, and supports itself through membership fees and government grants. Covering portions of Hudson and Bergen counties, it has a lot of attractions to highlight, Ross said.

Coming Attractions

Even before the scheduled 2014 Super Bowl, WrestleMania is coming to MetLife Stadium in April, while a Formula One auto race will roar along the Hudson waterfront in June, she said.

“And we’re very excited about American Dream Meadowlands,” Ross said.

The long delayed, heavily subsidized, and frequently lampooned shopping mall formerly known as Xanadu is now expected to open in autumn 2013, according to the current developer, Triple Five Worldwide of Edmonton.

“That is truly about to become a destination for the Meadowlands,” Ross said. “Shopping is a real draw for our international visitors.”

All that activity has not gone unnoticed by the Christie Administration. When travel and tourism announced $1.4 million in grants to destination marketing organizations this year, Meadowlands Liberty got the largest share, $150,000.

Her organization does not neglect museums or historical sites, Ross said. But when it comes to some, one recommendation to tourists is “make sure they’re open” before paying a visit, she said.

Closed for Business

That is not often the case for the Steuben House in River Edge, once a focus of the [link: Bridge Landing historic site]. Although Ross noted her organization promotes the historic site, the house has not had regular operating hours since its was severely damaged by Hackensack River flooding in 2007.

The house sits just yards from a river crossing, “the bridge that saved a nation,” where Gen. George Washington’s rebel army narrowly escaped destruction by the British in 1776. Confiscated from a loyalist family, the house later served as a headquarters for the army. After the war, a grateful state presented it to Gen. Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian officer who drilled the ragtag rebels into effective fighters. The site even has its own local park commission.

Led by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), area politicians and historical activists prodded the state Department of Environmental Protection to re-open the house and add tourist-oriented facilities nearby.

“We have so much to visit here, especially when it comes to our history,” said state Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen).

With several other historic structures on the scene, the locals envision great things for New Bridge Landing. In Weinberg’s words, it has the makings of “a mini-Williamsburg.”

That prospect leaves some aghast. Although highly popular, with 1.7 million visitors in 2011, the revived version of Virginia’s colonial capital has been regularly criticized as a 20th Century recreation of wobbly accuracy.

Disney World, NJ?

Bensley is sympathetic to her Bergen County counterparts. But surrounded by genuine historic attractions in Morris County, she hopes they will try for “something more authentic than a Disney World like Williamsburg.”

As a better model, Bensley pointed to Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley, scene of a Revolutionary War battle and 19th Century estates, where museums, galleries and restaurants have been able to maintain history while capitalizing on it commercially.

“Heritage tourism is 365-day-a-year tourism,” Bensley said. “It goes on before the Shore, during the Shore, after the Shore.”

But in New Jersey, even the elephant has left the room and gone to the beach. The best symbol for the state may be Lucy, Margate’s beloved wooden pachyderm. Tourists, and state policies, have followed her lead.