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The Virginia History Initiative 

12-09-2015 17:35

In my dictionary the first definition of community is "a group of people living in the same locality and under the same government." But we all know community is really about common interests, a sense of identity, and a sense of place. These are born of a group`s history, people`s common experience, their shared odyssey. Just as history forges and defines a community, historic landmarks perpetuate a community and induct new generations into it. Landmarks symbolize the history that makes a community worthy of citizenship, of lifetime commitment. History is fundamental to community, and communities -- whether the Commonwealth of Virginia, cities, towns, or crossroads hamlets -- should see and use their historic landmarks as community assets. That is the theme of the Virginia History Initiative, a venture into public-private partnership that already is yielding important benefits for preservationists and their many allies in both the public and the private spheres.

The subtheme of the initiative is that good stewardship of Virginia`s landmarks adds economic value to communities. Private investment in historic buildings under the federal rehabilitation tax credit program has run to some $360 million and has created an estimated 13,000 jobs over the past two decades, while igniting neighborhood turnarounds across the Commonwealth. Virginia`s new state rehabilitation tax credit, one of the most generous in the nation, will combine with the federal credit to create an even more powerful tool for community building.

Virginia`s history museums and sites play an important role in the Commonwealth`s $9.8 billion tourism industry. The world knows Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, and Monticello. But there are many other significant places that, through creative product development and marketing with other institutions, can become part of viable regional and thematic tourism alliances.

Virginia`s historic landmarks, natural beauty, and variety create an attractive ambience for companies that seek good fundamental economics and a high quality of life for employees. Thus, balanced historic preservation policies go hand in hand with economic development because Virginia companies can attract and keep executives and highly skilled workers.

In 1996 Governor George Allen launched the Virginia History Initiative to put Virginia`s rich history to work for current and future generations. The initiative brings together more than 75 members of the preservation community, museum professionals, business people, bankers, planners, local government officials, Realtors, archeologists, architects, lawyers, public relations specialists, and academics all of whom share the vision of partnership and of using history as a building block for a vital Commonwealth. By involving business, government, and opinion leaders, as well as preservationists, we are building new connections to bring stewardship into the mainstream of community decision making. We are also increasing the already important economic, cultural, and educational contributions of Virginia`s private and public historic attractions by strengthening cooperation and mutual support among them.

From the beginning of the 18-month effort, which will be completed in September 1997, the participants have demonstrated extraordinary commitment, teamwork, and creativity. Among the projects under way are the following.

  • A marketing plan for preservation is being developed by the College of William & Mary Business School on the basis of focus groups conducted across the state. The plan will present the benefits of heritage stewardship-based opportunities to community leaders, assess the obstacles that must be overcome, and articulate a strategy for doing so.
  • A financial incentives guide is being produced that developers, homeowners, mortgage lenders, and planners can use to leverageresources. This guide will be distributed in hard copy through existing networks and will be available on the Web.
  • The Initiative is seeking to have a preservation component built into all Virginia community and statewide leadership development programs.
  • Connections among the travel and hospitality, tourism, arts, and historic preservation communities are being built deliberately and systematically to achieve the full integration of history museums and sites into Virginia`s tourism industry.
  • Pilot "customer service for museums" training workshops are being conducted to create standards for high-quality customer service delivery.
  • A pilot "Time Travellers" program will encourage students and their families to visit history museums and historical sites and to become more familiar with their local and regional heritages.

The Initiative`s approach is democratic; as both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan used to say, "A rising tide lifts all boats." The structure is intended to marry the efforts of statewide organizations and major cultural institutions with those of grass-roots organizations and small museums.

Underlying our progress is a common determination to leverage resources by building partnerships. We are leveraging influence by reaching beyond the "preservation choir." We are leveraging intellectual capital, too. Brain power is our best asset, because the more we spend, the more it grows. Just as we took the time to set the stage for lasting and valuable results by building a consensus on goals and principles, we are working hard to ensure that our work endures and makes a difference.

As Virginia moves toward the year 2007, the 400th anniversary of the first English settlement in America at Jamestown, we want every Virginia community to glory in its history. We want all Americans to come and explore the Commonwealth that Thomas Jefferson called the "blessed mother of us all." The Virginia History Initiative is our way of getting our communities and our history ready for company.

Publication Date: March/April 1997

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Author(s):H. Alexander Wise, Jr.