Now neglected, rich history could be boon for Baltimore

January 10, 2008|By Pamela Charshee

What is the price of history?

It's impossible to figure. But we are nagged by that question with news of the impending sale of the President Street station - the sale of Baltimore's Civil War history.

Baltimore is rich in historical structures (it's the "Monumental City," right?) and studded with an array of heritage venues that other cities should envy over their potential for tourism development. Why, in a town steeped in history going back to Colonial times, is its premier Civil War museum on the chopping block - and why have so many other small historical attractions dropped off the map in recent years? We've seen the closing of the H. L. Mencken House and Lillie Carroll Jackson Museum; others, including the Poe House and the Carroll Mansion, are operating at reduced hours or by appointment only.

The answer lies in how we as Baltimoreans think about our history.

Viewed from a national perspective, the numbers for local history and heritage tourism are cause for optimism. Recent travel data from the Tourism Industry of America show that Baltimore attracts close to 9 million tourists per year. If 24 percent of them visit heritage or cultural attractions (the national average) and spend $500 per person (50 percent higher than the $336 for other tourists), that works out to $1.1 billion in annual revenue from visits to local historic sites or museums - in theory, anyway. At the same time, this is less than 1 percent of the national leisure travel market.

The downside is that these numbers represent underperformance. But they also represent an exciting opportunity to do better. With a national leisure travel industry that is growing (an increase of 1.7 percent in 2006), and heritage tourism a huge chunk of it, Baltimore's less than 1 percent market share represents a challenge that the local history community, working together with city government, can meet with creative planning and innovative marketing strategies. Some of these ideas are mentioned in the city's 2001 Heritage Area Management Action Plan.

Baltimore has traditionally focused on tourism attractions related to its image as a seafood, maritime and sports venue. But this city is big enough and gutsy enough to allow its other important historical and cultural identities to emerge.

For example, in addition to the President Street station, Baltimore's park system represents a sleeping giant of historical resources that have exciting tourism potential. Carroll Park alone contains Revolutionary period sites (Carroll's Hundred and Mount Clare) that the National Park Service has compared to Mount Vernon and Monticello. Clifton Park, Druid Hill Park, Cylburn and Patterson Park all have rich historical legacies and related structures.

Baltimore's historic neighborhoods contain some of the most beautiful architecture in America, including extraordinary examples of 19th-century churches and synagogues, townhouses and public squares. In other cities in America and around the world, the cache of this rich fabric of history is the force that drives local and international tourism. It is a fabric waiting to be enhanced and promoted. Baltimore is therefore in a great position to increase its share of the national and international leisure travel market.

The President Street station represents just one of many similar opportunities - not yet lost - to connect Baltimore's historical dots and tap into the sleeping giant of heritage tourism. It's nothing that a fresh look at the 2001 Heritage Area plan, together with other new marketing strategies, cannot accomplish.

The price of history? It's the wrong question. Instead, we should ask: What is the value of the history we stand to lose?

Pamela Charshee is executive director of the Carroll Park Foundation Inc. Her e-mail is pcharshe@verizon.net.

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