It’s time for Richmond to tap into history

Richmond Times Dispatch
Published: April 2014

By Brent D. Glass and Charles F. Bryan Jr.

In the movie “Field of Dreams,” the character played by Kevin Costner hears a voice that inspires him to build a baseball field in an Iowa cornfield. People come in droves to watch old-timers play, a fantasy with a happy ending.

For history museums and sites, success in real life requires more than a Hollywood script. In Richmond, a proposed national slavery museum will need careful planning, broad public support and effective marketing. The idea is compelling, but if they build it, will people come — and will the museum be sustainable?

Last year, we co-authored a report on heritage tourism for Dr. Eugene Trani’s Richmond’s Future initiative. We evaluated the city’s major historical assets and compared Richmond to several other state capitals.

We found that none surpasses Richmond’s unique treasure trove of architectural landmarks and nationally significant historical resources. It has abundant archival, library and artifact collections that draw museum visitors, scholars and genealogists from across the country and around the world.

The proposed slavery museum, if built and sustained, could add to the richness of the historical attractions in the community. Richmond’s historic resources have integrity and authenticity — two ingredients that are critical for an effective tourism initiative.

Draw a 75-mile radius around Richmond and you will not find another area in the country that is as steeped in the history of America. Stories of American Indians, the first permanent English settlement in America, the horrors of slavery, early representative government, the American Revolution, Founding Fathers and presidents, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Industrial Revolution, World War II, the civil rights movement and the Cold War are all within this remarkable region, with Richmond right in the middle.

Richmond’s location at the interchange of two of the country’s busiest interstate highways and within a day’s drive of nearly one-third of the American population gives the city a strong competitive edge. It is not simple civic pride to proclaim Richmond as “the crossroads of American history.”

The area’s historic resources are being recognized by the travel industry, thanks in part to the efforts of Richmond Region Tourism to make history an important part of its marketing efforts.

The highly respected travel guide, Frommer’s, recently named Richmond as one of its Top Destinations for 2014, commending the city for its historic attractions. The current Civil War sesquicentennial has helped increase visitation to the Richmond region.

Nevertheless, until relatively recently Richmond has not taken full advantage of its strengths and strategic opportunities, and it continues to trail other historic attractions. In Virginia Tourism Corp.’s latest report, Richmond was not among the Top 25 Virginia Attractions Most Frequently Visited by Travelers, even though 16 of those were historic attractions and eight were Civil War sites.

Why? Part of problem is that despite the concerted efforts of Richmond Region Tourism to promote Richmond, the area trails other communities in funding for marketing. Richmond spends about $400,000 annually, while Virginia Beach; Atlanta; Nashville and Memphis, Tenn.; and Charleston, S.C., each spend millions to promote tourism.

Because Richmond has a limited budget, targeting potential visitors is essential. Numerous studies reveal that interest in history grows with age. For various reasons, most people do not show an interest in the past until they become eligible for AARP membership.

Putting their own lives in perspective seems to become much more important. It is no surprise that the majority of subscribers to Ancestry.com, members of historical organizations, viewers of History on cable TV and PBS’ “American Experience,” and readers of nonfiction history are people with graying hair.

With the baby-boom generation now reaching retirement age, Richmond has a resource — history — that should be tapped more effectively to attract this huge population. Boomers are traveling in large numbers, often with their children and grandchildren. The U.S. Tour Operators Association reported that half of its members report an increase in “grand travel” — two- and three-generational travel, instigated mostly by the grandparents.

We urge community leaders, tourism representatives and historic site directors and their boards to invest more in planning and promotion. A comprehensive heritage tourism plan would be crucial to a successful slavery museum. And let’s spend some money to tell our story as “the crossroads of American history,” an investment that can yield big dividends.