UB Planning Studio Cites Shared Themes and Benefits of Heritage Tourism in Upstate New York

Study laments missed opportunities for development of important tourist lure

Release Date: December 23, 2003 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Heritage-based tourism is the fastest-growing segment of the world tourism market, but researchers in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning report that as a result of fractionalism and lack of leadership, upstate New York is missing out on the opportunity to reinvigorate heritage tourism in the region.

The report is based on months of extensive research by UB graduate students in urban and regional planning working under the direction of Ernest Sternberg, Ph.D., UB professor of planning and a specialist in tourism planning. It was produced in a response to the conditions of economic distress throughout upstate New York and the regional fragmentation that suggests the absence of a coherent plan to deal with them.

In a presentation to the Rockefeller Institute for Government in Albany on Dec. 10, the students explored heritage tourism as a specific approach to economic distress, and discussed its feasibility as a basis upon which upstate New York could build a sense of identity and capacity for joint action. The team proposed a number of initiatives, including an Upstate Heritage Foundation to promote upstate heritage-based tourism.

"The report was of a much higher quality than those received from consultants and even from many state agencies," Sternberg says, "and it was very well received.

"It remains to be seen, however, whether or not the material offered will be used constructively by upstate agencies, municipalities and those interested in developing the heritage tourism industry here," he says

In conducting the study, the students focused on 12 heritage themes that tie upstate New York together: including the Iroquois, military heritage, agriculture, sports, urban places, architecture, religion, freedom, literature, science and innovation, and visual arts. They also identified the transportation heritage that interconnects upstate towns and cities: canals and waterways, railways, trails, and historic trails and roadways.

Although there is a great deal of shared historic, cultural, industrial, military and artistic material to work with, the students noted that this legacy that has never been considered the important asset it is to upstate New York. As a result, says Sternberg, even state residents are relatively uniformed about the wonderful opportunity the state's history represents.

"In the 19th century, for instance, upstate New York led the national campaigns for abolition of slavery, civil rights, religious freedom, and women's suffrage," he points out.

"Across the state, however, this enormous freedom-fighting heritage tends to focus on a few historic sites. An exciting, in-depth and cohesive presentation, however, could ignite curiosity about this radical bastion of social, religious and political revolutionaries who drastically changed human-rights policies of the United States.

"In addition to that," he says, "despite a century of major upstate innovations in the fields of automotive, aircraft and watercraft development, and the establishment of more than 30 small transportation museums, we still don't have world-class consolidated exhibits of this important heritage."

According to the students, heritage tourism is neglected for a number of reasons, not the least of which are the New York's many financial problems and the fact that it remains at the tail end of economic growth among U.S. states.

They say that one major and unrecognized difficulty is that upstate is conventionally divided into regions, from the Capital District to Western New York. Problems of economic development, however, need to be tackled, not regionally, but by upstate as a whole.

For this to happen, they maintain that those living in the section of New York that stretches from Lake Erie east to the Vermont border and south into the Hudson Valley need to be educated about the enormous historic legacy that they share so that they can develop around it economic-development programs that could draw tourists from across the country and abroad.

This idea, says Sternberg, sent the students in search of many shared heritages that could help upstaters find a common identity.

The religious-heritage team, for instance, looked at the Iroquois longhouse religion and -- among other things -- the reasons underlying the amazing array of individualistic, utopian, perfectionist and often peculiar religions that were founded in upstate New York since the mid-19th century.

In fact, the upstate region was known then as the "Burned Over District, for the incredible intensity of belief (and belief systems) that swept over the land not once but many times during the 19th century, like a fire that burns a field and then erupts spontaneously time and time again."

This is where the "free-love" Oneida Community was established, along with Seventh-Day Adventism, Mormonism and Spiritualism. Millerism thrived and the Finney revivalists found willing listeners.

Zealotry flourished across upstate New York in the 19th century to the extent that, as historian Carol Kammen writes, "every crackpot idea that came in on the packet boat found someone to believe in it."

The students also examined the rich and extensive collection of materials and sites related to the Iroquois Confederation. Many are familiar with one or more aspects of Iroquois life, says Sternberg, but the distinctive contribution to upstate history by this fascinating and distinguished group of Indian nations would be very difficult for the average person to glean from our undeveloped heritage tourism industry.

Upstate's unusual military heritage also is fairly unknown, the students found. Many New Yorkers know that it was a major venue in King William's War, the Revolutionary War, the French and Indian War (King George's War) and the War of 1812.

Most never heard of the Schenectady Massacre of 1690, however, or know that at the turn of the 19th century, the Finger Lakes region was known as the "Military Tract" because the state allotted the land to veterans of the Revolutionary War in payment for their service.

Because the land commissioners in Albany gave "high-fallutin'" names to the tiny, desolate hamlets that sprang up in the Finger Lakes region -- names like Syracuse, Utica, Ulysses, Rome, Homer, Ithaca and Cicero -- the zone later was known, particularly among foreign visitors traveling on the Erie Canal, as "the Land of Silly Names."

Students on the sports' heritage team collected data on the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, the Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, the Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, the PGA golf course in Otsego, the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Games at Lake Placid, and Lake Placid's continuation as a major winter sports training venue.

Water sports have a long history in upstate New York, from the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes to the high lakes of the Adirondacks. Upstaters developed the famous Adirondack Guideboats, the St. Lawrence River Skiffs and the vast assortment of superbly crafted canoes, kayaks and racing boats.

Upstate also was the location of major automobile designers and manufacturers. The luxurious Pierce Arrows and Packards were designed and built in Buffalo, which since then has served as a major automobile-manufacturing city.

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