While working at the St. Croix National Park Service I have had the opportunity to watch the park administration help a budding friends organization create a National Heritage Area. While you can read more at the NPS website, basically a National Heritage Area is cohesive region that shares common natural, cultural and historic resources that are nationally important. While NHAs originally had some federal funding for administration and promotion when they first came around in the 1980s, that aid has dried up. The driving force behind an NHAs success in generating a heritage tourism economy supported by a community, telling a cohesive story about its past to outsiders.
Predictably there are a lot of ins-and-outs to the process especially in getting the NHA approved by Congress, but before that and by far the most fascinating part of the process is community building. This is the stage where the St. Croix Heritage Initiative is at. The St. Croix Valley Foundation, and the St. Croix River Association, along with several other community partners began initial planning two-years ago and last winter they began a campaign to generate community interest in the concept. Hiring an outside community-building consultation firm (I know, right?) to facilitate the process, the movement became the Heritage Initiative, building a web 2.0 site to allow participation and launching a feasibility study through public “Discovery Workshops.”
Using the St. Croix Watershed as the study area (and a natural starting point for creating a Heritage Area centered on a river), the Heritage Initiative held these workshops in 10 of the 11 counties that make up the watershed. I attended one of these workshops in late May as part of my job with the Park Service.