Sunday, February 1, 2009

Small town learns about heritage tourism

By Michelle Guffey South Carolina Bureau
Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009

AIKEN --- More than 100 people representing tourism and development from across South Carolina converged on Aiken recently to see firsthand what the city has to offer.

Trophies are displayed in a case as people listen to Lisa Hall, of the Aiken Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department, give a tour of the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame at Hopelands Gardens in Aiken. The South Carolina National Heritage Corridor held its second summit in Aiken to give representatives from other towns a chance to see successful preservation and marketing at work.

"Aiken has created that distinct sense of place," said Michell McCollum, the president of the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor, the organization that put on the three-day Heritage Development Summit.

For those actively involved in heritage tourism, the summit offered a chance to share ideas and learn how to preserve the past while marketing for the future.
"We help communities with marketing and preservation -- communities that want a sense of self that makes us unique," said Elizabeth Harm, the director of marketing and field development with the Heritage Corridor.

Holding the organization's second summit in Aiken allowed attendees to see a town that has successfully embraced preservation and heritage tourism and development.

In 2008, Aiken was named a Distinctive Destination by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"I'm proud to live in a community where heritage tourism is understood," said Ms. Harm, an Aiken resident.

Looking around at the people browsing the exhibits set up in the auditorium at the municipal building, Ms. Harm remarked that each one came from different communities across South Carolina but all had the same goal.

"To promote their communities for the people that live in them as well as the people that visit," she said.

Towns in the U.S. haven't always shown interest in heritage tourism. At one time, people and businesses were migrating to suburbs and malls, and once-thriving downtowns were abandoned, Ms. McCollum and Ms. Harm said. However, they said, attitudes in small towns across the country have begun to change in the past couple of decades, and ideas about preservation have taken hold.

"The interest is resurfacing," Ms. McCollum said. "We're all coming to realize that sense of place is the energy that keeps a community viable -- it's what attracts civic-minded residents. It's what attracts small business, and if you're doing that, visitors will follow."

In Aiken in the early 1990s, community and civic leaders set about to revitalize the downtown and help people and businesses rediscover the city's character and small-town charm.

"What we all want is to live in a place you love, and to live in a place that is worthy of love," Ms. McCollum said. "That happens when everybody works together."

The heritage corridor covers 17 counties in South Carolina and was established by the federal government in 1996 as one of a select number of National Heritage Areas -- regions in which entire communities live and work and where residents, businesses and local governments have come together to conserve special landscapes and their own heritage.

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