On a cold, sunny morning, Senator Tom Carper stands with a small group of people on the stone path at the
He looks out at the
“Almost 400 years ago, a bunch of Swedes and Finns sailed right up that river and landed right here to establish the colony of
The immediate area, however, seems barren. The water is dark, a vacant lot nearby is dotted with trash. The senator sweeps his arms toward the overgrown riverbanks and says he envisions a bright future. He imagines the area bustling with activity, busy with tourists soaking up a bit of local history, then hitting nearby night spots.
“Tourism,” he says, “has to be a big part of our future.”
Photograph © by Luigi Ciuffetelli
That’s especially important now, Carper believes, because the pillars of economic health are changing. “We’ve lost 17,000 jobs at the DuPont Company. We’ve lost a couple thousand jobs at Hercules, several thousand jobs at GM and Chrysler, and we’re seeing a consolidation of jobs in financial services with the Bank of America buyout of MBNA. We need to find ways to strengthen our economy.”
Though he foresees biotech and legal services as possible economic strengths, Carper insists that tourism will be essential. Future attractions that might draw visitors to the
But state leaders, at Carper’s urging, have invited the help of an unlikely agency they believe might not only help draw people to the riverfront, but will also provide a framework to showcase cultural and historical attractions along the Delaware coast—the National Park Service.
Congress is currently considering the Delaware National Coastal Special Resources Study Act, introduced in the fall of 2004 by Carper, U.S. Senator Joe Biden and U.S. Representative Mike Castle. The bill would authorize the National Park Service to study the feasibility of establishing a park unit here in
The National Park Service’s mission is to preserve both natural and cultural resources for people to enjoy, which may make it the one agency able to help an area grow its tourism economy while preserving and enhancing the features of the local landscape that make an area unique.
In this area, the
“If this is a horse race,” Carper says, “not only are we dead last, but the rest of the field has lapped us a time or two.”
The idea of a local national park is not a new one. Driven by state pride and a desire to protect natural resources from development, state leaders have pursued a couple of bids over the years. Serious talks about establishing a unit in
Biden revived talks of a
Talks with local residents and organizations, however, soon scuttled the plan.
The current Delaware National Coastal Special Resources Study Act presents a new scenario—the
These are not your grandparents’ parks, your Yellowstones and
Heritage areas also require much less federal involvement than parks do. Though the government would offer financial support, it would not swoop in and take them over. It neither owns nor manages a heritage area. Partnerships of national, state and local groups do that. Instead, the NPS designates a stretch of territory as nationally significant, then provides money and guidance to show local groups how to manage their unit.
The 27 existing heritage areas cover a range of American developmental steps, from the roots of the Industrial Revolution in
One example of the concept in action is the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, a more than 450- square-mile stretch of land along the
Though state and local groups do much of the work in the corridor, Andrews and Robert Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, say NPS involvement has been essential.
“Back in the ’80s (when the Blackstone heritage area was established), people came together to promote the idea from different angles and motivations,” Billington says. “Some were interested in tourism development, some in environmental improvement or preservation, and some in business and community development.”
National involvement acted as an umbrella. The NPS “brought pre-existing community groups together—historical, conservation, tourism and business—and helped them integrate their resources and goals,” Andrews says. “It helped these individual organizations see how much they shared in aims, and how they could work together to further those goals.”
And they did.
After years of pollution and abuse from textile companies that had dammed the length of the river, the Blackstone was left neglected, its waters choked with trash, its banks littered with abandoned mills. “When we started, we had a scarred up landscape—a dirty, filthy landscape with dis-investment going on,” Billington recalls.
Yet when a place is deemed nationally significant, a swelling of pride is inevitable, Billington says. Over the past 20 years, the Blackstone coalition has organized river clean-ups, built museums and visitors centers, and restored abandoned mills to livable, historically refurbished properties.
Visitors can now paddle the river, take tours with national park rangers, attend art and ethnic festivals, bike scenic trails, drive wildlife-watching loops, and see many Industrial Revolution-themed sites. Four interpretive centers along the corridor have become centers of community involvement.
“I’ve been looking at these mill buildings my entire life,” Billington says, “and where there were cinder blocks and boarded-up windows, now there are multi-paned windows, vitality and life on the side of the river.”
Though the revitalization seems like it would have required a huge federal outlay of funds, it didn’t. Billington says cost-efficient community regeneration has occurred because the national contribution attracts private investment. During its development, the Blackstone heritage corridor has earned a federal investment, Billington says, averaging about $1 million per year. “Over a period of nearly 20 years, that small federal investment has been leveraged many, many times over,” Billington says. He estimates private investment in core areas at $350 million.
“To me, the National Heritage Area program is the best program that has influenced life here in the
Telling a story, it turns out, is a key requirement for an area to be approved by the NPS. Whether that story is cultural, historical or environmental, Salkin says, “It needs to be compelling.” And, the NPS says, it needs to be original.
Soles says our state would have no problem telling a story of national interest. During the exploration process, his committee invited the public to suggest possible sites. Public nominations included, among others, the Underground Railroad, the Golden Fleece Tavern in Dover (where the Constitution was first ratified and earned us First State distinction), Fort Delaware, the Great Cypress Swamp, Delaware Route 9, and Carper’s favorite suggestion: an underwater national park off Cape Henlopen. Most suggestions fit a coastal theme, which the committee discovered to be unique and nationally relevant.
“Our country’s coastal heritage is not yet recognized anywhere” within existing units of the NPS, Soles says. The
After working with his committee and hearing scores of suggestions from the public, Soles can tick off a list of