OP-ED: A new York County History Center is a unique opportunity
Hundreds of towns in the eastern United States boast of roles in the nation's early struggles with independence, oppression, capitalism and secession. Thousands of examples of colonial and antebellum architecture line charming streets that form the backdrop of vital downtown commerce along the eastern coastline.
But York is unique. Every American adolescent studies the Articles of Confederation, which were drafted here. That singular event — all by itself — ties York to the heart of every American. The Articles were a flawed attempt at national government that was argued to life in the courthouse, on the muddy streets, and in the smoky taverns of this plucky little colonial town. York was across the river and far enough from the struggles at Valley Forge to be safe for the Founding Fathers and their ground-breaking work. It was too small, too uncivilized to serve them well. But serve it did.
Those nine months in 1777-78 launched York's centuries-long interest in history. The York County Heritage Trust is the product of that interest. Fueled by the passion and the treasures of countless volunteers and hundreds of philanthropists for 120 years, its holdings have grown to nearly 195,000 square feet of space scattered among 10 different buildings in York. Despite first-rate leadership at the trust, it cannot sustain this little empire with the modest number of donors and visitors that the small market of York can attract.
The York County Heritage Trust's proposed sustainability solution involves shedding most of those buildings and combining collections in a new "York County History Center," which is to be reclaimed from the Met Ed Steam Plant, just a half-block from the Colonial Complex. This bold approach will preserve and exhibit the most-prized York County treasures in a sustainable, focused way that will stay fresher (with rotating exhibits) to interest more visitors, more often. But the History Center could offer much more than just sustainability and fresher exhibits.
A task force recently explored the feasibility of the Creation of a Nation Museum, a world-class facility where visitors could experience the birth of the Articles of Confederation. That committee determined the museum would attract a good flow of out-of-town visitors, but the anticipated admission revenue could not sustain the large-scale effort that was envisioned.
The new History Center presents a unique opportunity to bridge that gap for York County tourism. If it devotes one corner of its exhibit space to the Articles of Confederation, with a modest exhibit and a mini-theater video introduction to the Articles and the Colonial Complex (the Newseum in D.C. does this well with its Pulitzer Prize exhibit), then it can drive new visitors to York by launching the visitor experience of York's recognized niche in U.S. history.
The Colonial Complex (Golden Plough Tavern, General Gates House, and Colonial Courthouse) provides a strong history-tourism foundation. The new History Center's video presentation and Articles-related exhibit can set the stage for visitors to tour these quality assets. I believe a first-quality introduction and overview experience is the key to bringing these quality buildings to life as a true tourism asset. Higher visitor traffic will sustain more consistent public visitation hours (and fees and staff), and the synergy with the new museum can transform the Colonial Complex into a real attraction.
The timing is perfect:
•York's Market District neighborhood is coming to life,
•the Trust is looking to transform so it can thrive into the future, and
•York's economy is seeking a new catalyst.
The History Center and the historic Market District with its restaurants and shops will partner in the resurgence of York's downtown, whether or not that partnership is purposeful. By also incorporating some key elements of the stillborn Creation of a Nation Museum, the History Center will create a legitimate tourist attraction and an employer/employee recruiting tool for the York County economy.
I envision tourists adding York's History Center to their Gettysburg or Philadelphia trips. I envision a sustainable history-keeping organization in York County, serving local students and residents. And I envision York County companies bringing recruits from outside the area to tour the unique Articles of Confederation exhibit and Colonial Complex. They won't even have to wait for baseball season to recruit!
I envision the York County Heritage Trust's right-sizing into its new History Center, done smartly, as a win for the entire county; a dramatic "next step" follow-up to the successful York Revolution/Santander Stadium project. This opportunity is before us today. I hope that the new History Center incorporates a world-class introduction of the Articles of Confederation story and the Colonial Complex. If it does, I hope that the community strongly supports it. This new community asset should become reality.
— David H. Hogg is founder and of Springwood Hospitality; chairman of the 2015-17 Keystone State Games Local Organizing Committee; former chair of the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau; and former vice chairman of the Creation of a Nation Task Force.