Putting New Jersey’s Historic Sites Back on the Map

Joe Tyrrell | September 11, 2012 | More Issues
For heritage tourism to become a growth industry, it needs to adopt some modern concepts -- like branding, collaboration, networking, and entertainment

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

Credit: Jackie Morales/Somerset County Business Partnership
The Duke Estate in Hillsborough, New Jersey
Sitting last month in the Steuben House, one of the nation’s most historic homes, state Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) looked southeast for an explanation of why it has been closed for five years.

“One thing that’s always bothered me is that tourism [policy] in New Jersey always seems to focus just on the Jersey Shore,” Gordon said. “We have no such commitment of resources when it comes to our history.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection responded that although the Steuben House has not had regular hours since a 2007 flood, repairs, maintenance and even some improvements have been done in and around it.

During a prolonged budget crunch, access and operating hours have been reduced at many park facilities. Some remain closed, such as Ringwood Manor, which suffered smoke damage and thefts, or the historic buildings at the once-thriving Waterloo Village.

Yet the state provided $261 million in tax incentives last year to get the stalled Revel casino-hotel project off the ground in Atlantic City, even as that resort tries to recapture its allure as a vacation destination instead of mere gambling mecca.

It is unclear whether that bet will pay off for taxpayers. To a large extent, however, such tourism policy decisions are merely following the crowds.

A 2011 report on Somerset County maps where visitors spend their money in New Jersey. Draw a line from High Point to Cape May. To the right of the line is where the dollars go.

Atlantic County brought in almost $8 billion of the state’s tourism revenues, followed by Cape May County at $5.1 billion and Ocean with $3.9 billion. Tourists spend more in Morris County than in Union County, but otherwise, the leading destinations line the Atlantic Ocean and lower Hudson Valley.

Then again, even Margate’s six-story elephant, Lucy, which was built in 1881, is a National Historical Landmark. In a small state, history, culture, and recreation frequently rub elbows.

Beyond the Beach

“When people come here to go to the beach, they find lots of other things,” said Jeanne DeYoung, Monmouth County’s tourism director.

Marketing rolling horse farms, art centers, lighthouses, county parks, golf courses, and historic structures and locations is a big job in the best of times, DeYoung said. At a time “of shrinking budgets, it becomes more and more difficult,” she said.

Promoting Shore attractions is an easier part of the task, because “the beaches are probably the reason most people come here, at least initially,” DeYoung said. But success at becoming a destination, as opposed to a day at the beach, means broadening that appeal and extending the season, she said.

That includes attracting older couples and others who find the “shoulder seasons” of spring and fall more leisurely than the summertime peak, she said. Even in summer, the recession changed what many people are looking for, DeYoung said.

“One of crazy things that I was asked last year for the first time ever was for a list of restaurants where children can eat free,” she said. “So we looked into it, and I found that we do have a number of restaurants that are doing that. People are looking for vacations they can afford, and businesses are responding.”

Unlike some general tourism promoters, DeYoung readily acknowledged that heritage tourists can have a big impact on local economies. Unfortunately, this year demonstrated that negatively, she said. In January, the state cancelled the annual re-enactment of the Revolutionary War Battle of Monmouth, arguably “the state’s largest heritage tourism event,” she said.

Although that came as a surprise, the reason was benign: construction of a new visitors center for the battlefield park. Fought under a broiling sun, the inconclusive clash was trumpeted as victory in patriot propaganda. It marked the first time Washington’s soldiers, newly trained by von Steuben, stood up against a main British army.

The lack of hundreds of re-enactors and thousands of spectators may have reduced traffic jams around Freehold. But the cancellation also meant a jolt for area businesses, DeYoung noted.

“They eat in our restaurants, a lot them do book rooms in our hotels, they spend money,” she said.

An Affordable Getaway

It might come as a surprise to residents with property taxes on their minds, but one reason visitors come to New Jersey is its affordability. Industry studies show that for most American destinations, transportation costs, especially air fares, eat up 40 percent of that $1.2 trillion in tourism spending.

In contrast, a typical visitor to New Jersey buys a tank of gas and pays a few tolls. According to annual surveys done for the Division of Travel and Tourism, an average traveler here spends just 17 percent on transportation, but much more after arrival, on accommodations, meals, and shopping.

Inland, suburban, with no high-profile arts district but many small historic sites and unpreserved larger ones, Somerset County would not seem to be a major place for tourists to spend freely.

“People don’t often think of us as a typical tourist destination,” said Jacqueline Morales, who became the Somerset County Business Partnership’s tourism director just 16 months ago.

She is proud of a trend that runs opposite to Monmouth County’s goals. While Shore spots seek ways to extend their seasons, Somerset’s hotels have catered to business travelers.

But coming out of the recession, “we’ve shifted from a typical business travel pattern to a typical leisure travel pattern,” Morales said. “Our hotels used to see their peak occupancies in October or May — business travelers. But now it’s shifted to July.”

With estate country that extends down from Morristown, long stretches of the Raritan River and the Delaware and Raritan Canal, plus the county’s large Sourlands Preserve, Somerset does offer settings for outdoor activities. That is creating an ambience for indoor and upscale experiences as well, according to Morales.

“We have a wealth of environmental and health and wealth activities,” she said. “There are many options for the medi-spa type of cultural travel.”

The Duke of New Jersey

That got a centerpiece with the May reopening of the Duke Estate in Hillsborough. It offers cultural and historic charms, albeit eccentrically, and environmental riches, although manmade.

In the closing years of the 19th Century, James Buchanan Duke, the founder of Duke Energy and the American Tobacco Co., assembled farms along the Raritan River into a vast estate. He sought to reshape the land to resemble his native North Carolina, and to amass a collection of plants from around the world.

His flamboyant daughter Doris Duke, “the richest girl in the world,” continued some of those undertakings, recreating international gardens with features including a Thai village of carved teak. Her death in 1993 produced a miniseries worth of legal wrangling, but eventually the property was taken over by a trust set up by her will.

The trust set about undoing much of the Dukes’ work, getting rid of those non-native trees and bushes, demolishing indoor gardens, dismantling the Thai village, even bringing in sharpshooters to eliminate the deer that animal-loving Doris Duke had allowed to flourish or overrun — depending on your perspective — within the fences.

With its new ecological mission on 2,740 acres, “three times the size of Central Park,” Morales said Duke Farms is welcoming a steady stream of visitors, some of whom patronize area restaurants and hotels.

While Duke Farms has the wherewithal to promote itself, Morales acknowledged, “it’s been a struggle” for smaller sites. There are varied house museums connected to the Continental Army’s frequent encampments in the area, used by Washington, von Steuben, and other notables.

“I’ve asked all the historical sites to come together and collaborate,” even if that simply means coordinating hours and devoting the same weekends to special events, she said. But it is hard on the operators, because many are run by volunteer groups or staffed by a single state curator, she said.

For many such groups, “their primary interest is how to preserve the site,” said Amy Webb, director of heritage tourism for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. To succeed in the tourism business, they need to try new things, she said.

When the society that runs the Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s Nashville home, ran into difficulty maintaining the sprawling grounds, it made a deal with the local John Deere distributor. The company gets to hold equipment expos and film commercials at the Hermitage in exchange for a steady supply of new tractors and other equipment.

“It’s important for a site to connect with its community,” Webb said, such as the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Va., which made its digital photo specialists available to restore members’ old family photos. “Make sure you build relationships.”

“In New Jersey, Passaic County is linking a network of trails to the new National Historical Park,” [http://www.nps.gov/pagr/index.htm|Paterson Great Falls], Webb said. That promises to combine history and science with natural beauty and outdoor activities, she said.

So New Jersey is not completely failing at heritage tourism, according to Webb and others in the field. They pointed to the Lambertville-New Hope, Pa., area and Cape May as places that have put themselves on the map in recent decades.

That has taken a 40-year effort, fueled by belated recognition of local assets, according to Michael Zuckerman, director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities in Cape May.

“Yes, we have an incredible collection of historic buildings, yet when the center started in the 1970s, most of the town had not been restored,” Zuckerman said.

Launched as a successful effort to save the 19th Century Emlen Physick Estate, with a mansion designed by noted architect Frank Furness, the center helped spur a physical as well as a cultural revival in the community. Rundown Victorian homes were restored, some converted to business uses.

Meanwhile, the center added the Cape May Lighthouse, built in 1859, and a World War II watchtower to its catalogue of historic attractions. Beachgoers, birdwatchers and people on romantic getaways all seemed happy to have a range of other tourist attractions, Zuckerman said.

But as the millennium dawned, house tours and history museums seemed to lose their appeal, he said. The center began “broadening the range of stories,” such as annual exhibits featuring different aspects of the area’s African-American history, he said.

That has helped, but it has not reversed what he sees as a loss of interest in American history. Whether it is the “poor quality of history education” or cable television’s flashier reshuffling of the past, Zuckerman believes many visitors are just looking for a sprinkling of facts on a gelato of fun.

“We try to sneak some educational content into everything we do,” he said, but “we’re doing things we never would have considered a decade ago.”

As summer wanes, paranormal has become the new normal, with murder mysteries this month at Cape May’s Physick Estate, followed in October by Halloween-related ghost tours. Zuckerman is happy that they are popular, but readily describes their purpose as “fund-raising.” He worries that without a coherent state effort to maintain and promote New Jersey’s actual culture and history, more such local entertainments and reruns of “Jersey Shore” will fill the gap, reinforcing false images.

Even as she suggests partnerships and branching out, Webb cautioned that those steps require “a balancing act” to avoid losing the significance of historic and cultural assets.

“It’s a question that we’re all facing,” she said. “What is it OK to do? Where do you draw the line?”