In less than a decade the nation will celebrate the 250th anniversary of its founding — the U.S. Semiquincentennial — and some state lawmakers and historic-preservation advocates want to make sure New Jersey will be able to take full advantage of its rich colonial history.
A bill that lawmakers sent to Gov. Phil Murphy several weeks ago seeks to establish an American Revolution anniversary program in New Jersey in the run up to 2026, with a $500,000 annual appropriation as part of the bill.
Meanwhile, lawmakers held a lengthy discussion during a recent legislative hearing in Trenton that focused on other ways the 250th anniversary could generate recognition for New Jersey’s role in the nation’s founding, as well as some much-needed economic activity. The envisioned effort would include putting up more signs to highlight historic sites and investing more in the upkeep of those sites to make sure they are prepared for more visitors.
The hearing was held inside the Old Barracks, a building located around the corner from the State House that dates to 1758. Used to house soldiers during the American Revolution, the barracks is one of a number of sites across the state that could be used to recognize — and cash in on — the state’s revolutionary heritage.
“We are steeped in history here in the capital, as well as in New Jersey,” said Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer). “We should capitalize on it because it has so many economic benefits, as well as historical benefits.”
More battles in NJ than in any other state
Historians have determined that there were more American Revolutionary battles fought in New Jersey than in any other U.S. state. Gen. George Washington — who would go on to become the first U.S. president — spent much of his time during the American Revolution lodged at different locations in New Jersey.
Yet Dr. Maxine Lurie, chair of the New Jersey Historical Commission and professor emerita at Seton Hall, suggested much of New Jersey’s colonial heritage is not well known as the state hasn’t tried to spread the word as aggressively as its neighbors. For example, she said both Pennsylvania and New York have signs dotting their landscapes that highlight the roles they played in the American Revolution. New Jersey could do the same with its own signage, Lurie said.
“State history is important because, among other reasons, it helps give residents, young and old, born here and immigrants, a sense of place and belonging,” she said during the hearing. “Now is the time, as the Legislature has wisely recognized, to start planning for the 250th anniversary,” she said.
Patrick Murray, who serves on the board of the nonprofit Crossroads of the American Revolution Association said that, in addition to having so many historic sites, New Jersey had been the scene of many events that could be recognized over a number of years before and after 2026. By contrast, places like Massachusetts have only a few major events to recognize.
“You come to New Jersey, we have years more of incredible commemorative events to talk about,” Murray said. “But what that means is that we need to create a heritage-tourism infrastructure that’s equal to bringing folks here and keeping them here — and that will benefit local communities for generations to come.”
Good business opportunity
Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776, will rightfully be a center of semiquincentennial activity given the historic sites that have been well-preserved there. Murray said New Jersey could take advantage of its location to lure visitors to Philadelphia to come see what’s in the Garden State, including the place where Washington famously crossed the Delaware River near Trenton in 1776.
“Get them across the river and keep them here,” said Murray, who also serves as the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Dorothy Guzzo, executive director of the New Jersey Historic Trust, reiterated the idea that the state’s colonial heritage can be a source of economic development. She pointed to a recent economic-impact study that estimated the state’s heritage tourism attracted 11 million visitors and generated $335 million in state and local tax revenue.
“That’s without much state investment, little or no marketing, and it was measured as we were coming out of a recession,” Guzzo said.
While her group is funded with $3 million in revenue that’s generated annually by the state corporate-business tax, Guzzo suggested the state should be spending up to $10 million annually to properly keep up all its historic sites. “We know from our tourism partners that there is a huge return on investment from marketing and promotion, and we know that our capital grants leverage just as much, if not more, in private philanthropy,” Guzzo said. “In short, an investment in New Jersey’s history is a good business opportunity.”
Tax credits for Trenton homeowners?
In addition to providing an annual appropriation to support a state-based semiquincentennial effort, the bill awaiting action from the governor would also allow the New Jersey Historical Commission to enter into public-private partnerships with outside organizations.
Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora, who was among those to testify during the Old Barracks hearing, said the upcoming 250th anniversary could also give a boost to the ongoing push to revitalize his city after years of economic struggle.
The state could provide tax credits to homeowners who restore the exteriors of their colonial-era homes, said Gusciora, who is a former lawmaker. He also envisioned cooperating with the state to create a “historic pathway” along the Assunpink Creek, which was the scene of the decisive Second Battle of Trenton in 1777.
“We should be promoting our historic battlefields and the historic places in this state, and it will go a long way to attracting visitors from outside the state for many years to come,” Gusciora said.
“New Jersey should not be taking a backseat to any state when it comes to history,” added Turner.