Last week, I wrote about the large number of areas in East and Northeast Kentucky that possess military heritage. The list included homes of military heroes and a smaller but still significant number of battlefields. This week, I traveled to one of those sites: Cumberland Gap. As I mentioned last week, the Gap was an important spot for Daniel Boone and was later used as an invasion route by a Confederate army. Today, it’s part of the U.S. Park system and thus maintained by the federal government. Thousands of visitors come every year to see this free site. It’s a beautiful park and I’m proud we have it, but to my knowledge not a single entrepreneur (or private non-profit) has directly leveraged this historical location (the Gap itself) to earn the first dollar.
Further down the road, historic sites abound. From Middlesboro to Maysville, there are dozens of historically significant sites. They include battlefields, famous birth places, historical homes, and locations visited by eminent persons. With the exception of parks at Levi Jackson and Blue Licks (in Nicholas County), and a private museum devoted to the Underground Railroad in Maysville, the only thing to visit at the overwhelming majority of these sites are highway signs or gravestones. (Franklin Sousley, immortalized in the famous flag raising picture at Iwo Jima, has a slightly more elaborate grave site worth seeing in Fleming County.)
If we are to truly take advantage of our historical heritage, we are going to have to think harder about ways to leverage it into economic development. Possible answers include:
• Museums: Could we establish a “turnkey” system that would allow locals to easily spawn museums at famous historical sites? These wouldn’t need to be open daily or even for long hours, but the presence of a place to visit (with a well-stocked gift shop) could work to attract visitors and money into the region.
• Tours: Many of the historic sites in the region are but way-stations in a longer arc of history. Daniel Boone spent significant time in Pike County, Bell County, Owsley County, Clark County, Nicholas County and Mason County. Would people pay for a well-planned tour that included visits to special sites?
• Content: How can we leverage the World Wide Web to sell new short stories and music that relate to the region? Can we entice the locals to create more?
• Crafts: Who makes authentic long rifles in the region? Who makes period axes, hatchets, knives? Again, the web can augment our sales.
• Reenactments (perhaps tied to new festivals and heritage days): We need more events to push the story line and promote all the above. We have to give folks a reason to come here and spend their money.
These are just a few ways that we might be able to start leveraging our heritage to grow the economy. In order for it to work, we’ll need strategic-leadership, entrepreneur’s participation, a strategy to mint new entrepreneurs, and education/training in spades. Could this be a SOAR project?
Johnathan Gay is the Director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. He helps entrepreneurs start businesses. For more information or to contact Johnathan, please visit www.kyinovation.com.