March 28, 2009

South Park close to being named National Heritage Area
Obama’s signature expected on bill that passed the House and Senate

The bill that would make South Park a National Heritage Area has passed through both houses of Congress and is close to being signed by President Obama. This map shows the area that the National Heritage Area would encompass. (Courtesy map)

The bill that would make South Park a National Heritage Area has passed through both houses of Congress and is close to being signed by President Obama.

The bill would make South Park one of 49 National Heritage Areas across the country and one of three in Colorado.

According to a March 26 press release from the Park County Office of Tourism and Community Development, a National Heritage Area is a "place where natural, cultural, historic and scenic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape arising from patterns of human activity shaped by geography."

The designation means a great deal to the county, said Park County Tourism and Community Development Director Gary Nichols.

"It's something we can be known for nationally, if not internationally," he said. "And at the same time, preserve our resources and quality of life."

South Park will be listed with other national heritage areas, and be showcased by National Parks as a spot of interest.

"We have this option to position Park County as a destination," he said.

The South Park National Heritage Area will also allow the county to apply for federal grants up to $1 million per year for 15 years, not to exceed $10 million over the 15-year span. The county must secure matching funds for each grant dollar, he said.

"The matching is going to be the most challenging part, but nevertheless, to receive this designation and have that opportunity or availability of federal funding, if we can meet the criteria, it's huge," Nichols said.

The matching money can come from other grants, though, so the county wouldn't have to provide the money from its budget, according to Nichols.

Park County can apply for up to $1 million each year for the next 15 years because of the designation. Congress sets the budget for the money available for national heritage areas. In 2007, it had a $28 million budget for 28 national heritage areas.

Before any grants can be sought, though, a 10-year master plan must be put in place and an advisory board must be established.

Nichols said the 10-year master plan would outline the powers of the advisory board, so it would need to be completed before the advisory board is assembled.

The board would be made up of Park County residents who supported seeking the heritage designation.

The Park County commissioners would decide which office would manage the heritage area, but Nichols was confident his office would be named.

The National Heritage Area designation could also mean more tourism dollars for the county.

According to Laura Libby, the heritage tourism program manager for the Colorado Office of Tourism, 24 million people came to Colorado for pleasure trips in 2007, and 35 percent of those visitors engaged in cultural and heritage activities, such as going to museums and areas with historical significance. An estimated $3.6 billion was spent by tourists engaging in heritage activities in Colorado.

Visitors who seek out cultural heritage areas tend to visit more than just one per trip, she said, and people who come to Colorado for that reason would be likely to come to Park County when the National Heritage Area designation is attached.

Nichols said the South Park National Heritage Area has a number of unique features that would attract travelers.

Park County has ranches that were formed in the 1860s, a number of old mines, and a rich history, he said.

"Combine that with the altitude, climate and the setting, and that really sets us apart," Nichols said.

Linda Balough, director of the Park County Office of Historic Preservation, said one of the unique features Park County boasts is the world's highest mine, at 14,157 feet, on Mt. Lincoln near Alma.

Silver was mined from the Present Help Mine from the late 1860s into the 1870s, she said.

She said the heritage area designation could also capture the interest of people who come to Park County for different reasons.

For instance, she said, hikers trying to climb a 14er could learn about the history of the Present Help Mine and appreciate the heritage of the area a little better.

Tourists with information of the history of an area tend to be more respectful of it, she said.

"They start to get excited about it and take ownership themselves, which is the biggest thing," she said. "Heritage tourists stay longer, they spend more money, and they are more respectful."