Feasibility study to assess nationally significant heritage of NCK and SCN

Map created by University of Nebraska-Lincoln students highlighting two-hour driving distance from Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Feasibility study to assess nationally significant heritage of NCK and SCN.

The Kansas Nebraska Heritage Area Partnership (KNHAP), a diverse, bi-state partnership of cultural, historical, economic development and tourism organizations and individuals, has formed in hopes of establishing a National Heritage Area within 49 counties between North Central Kansas and South Central Nebraska. The mission of the Kansas Nebraska Heritage Area Partnership is to connect communities and attractions, instill pride of place, and promote immersive experiences for residents and visitors to enhance appreciation for the region’s unique landscape and nationally significant cultural history.

Heritage tourism is considered one of the fastest-growing segments in the tourism industry and equates to a $171 billion annual spend. The National Trust defines heritage tourism as “travel to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present. It includes cultural, historic and natural resources” (National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2008). Eighty-one percent of U.S. tourists are considered “cultural tourists,” and 56 percent of the U.S. population indicated it included at least one cultural, arts, historic or heritage activity or event while on a trip in the past year. Historical places and museums rank top on the list of activities at a destination (66 percent), followed by cultural events and festivals (45 percent). Heritage tourists travel to destinations that are off the beaten path. They are in search of authentic experiences and want to learn something new during their travels.  (https://www.buses.org/news/article/insider-exclusive-heritage-toursim-facts-figures)

Cultural tourists spend more and stay longer: The average spend per cultural tourist is 60 percent more at approximately $1,319 per trip, as compared to $820 for the traditional, domestic leisure traveler. Cultural tourists take 3.6 trips vs. 3.4 trips annually. (https://www.buses.org/news/article/insider-exclusive-heritage-toursim-facts-figures

KNHAP Origins

The Willa Cather Foundation partnered with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2016 to explore regional heritage tourism strategies to bring more tourists into the area. This process began as an exploratory University of Nebraska-Lincoln undergraduate landscape architecture studio. The study sought to understand the ways to increase economic development through a more regional approach to cultural heritage tourism. The study area was established based on a series of user profiles and their interest in traveling a distance of two hours and spending up to three days experiencing a myriad of local resources including museums, public parks, golfing, restaurants and so on. A team of nine students collected information on cultural-related sites, including food, lodging and other basic tourism services, and intangible features such as the arts, religion and culture.

Students also collected information in the study area and discovered the wealth of interesting cultural, historic, and environmental resources. At a community meeting and based on this inventory, a group of community participants suggested we explore a National Heritage Area. The students spent three weeks understanding the requirements associated with becoming a National Heritage Area (NHA).

After the project ended in May 2017, a group of interested community citizens and directors of museums and foundations met with the National Park Service (NPS) to understand in more detail the process and requirements of becoming a NHA. NHAs are administered by NPS coordinators in Washington DC and six regional offices – Anchorage, San Francisco, Denver, Omaha, Philadelphia and Atlanta – as well as park unit staff. NHAs are not national park units. Rather, NPS partners with, provides technical assistance, and distributes matching federal funds from Congress to NHA entities. The NPS and NHA do not assume ownership of land inside heritage areas or impose land use controls.

The Willa Cather Foundation and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln convened partners and stakeholders in both states for a series of meetings to discuss the NHA concept and make recommendations about whether to establish a nonprofit and raise funds for a feasibility study to further explore the concept of a NHA designation.  In 2017, a volunteer board was formed to explore opportunities, define its mission and look at initial feasibility. These volunteers have initial beliefs, in part based on the students’ research, that there are nationally significant heritage themes regarding: Settlement and Migration, Homesteading, Development of Land, Native Americans, Nature.

KNHAP’s goal is to build a network for heritage sites, museums, CVB’s, cities, and counties that wish to participate in this volunteer effort. This network would collaboratively work together in marketing the region’s existing attractions with unified themes. Matching federal funding can provide tourism professionals and organizations with professional development opportunities as well as funding for new marketing initiatives and projects related to the themes. 

In the future the network aims to promote the entire region to tourists ranging from bird watchers on the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska to the Pony Express Station in Marysville, Kansas to the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Nebraska, or the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas. As a network working together, the aim is to draw more people off of I-70 and I-80 that can help serve as a catalyst for economic development through heritage tourism.

National Heritage Area Facts

In 1984, the first National Heritage Area, Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Area, was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.  In his dedication speech, Reagan referred to National Heritage Areas as a marriage of heritage conservation, recreation, and economic development.  

Every administration since Reagan has had a hand in creating the 55 existing NHAs in the US. One area is Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, which encompasses 29 eastern Kansas and 12 western Missouri counties and preserves, interprets and promotes stories of the Missouri Kansas Border War and enduring struggles for freedom.  Visitors are invited to explore nearby museums, archives, libraries, historic sites and other attractions in either Kansas or Missouri to learn about the events that led to the Civil War and experience from many viewpoints the strong freedom story that runs along the Missouri Kansas border.

National Heritage Areas commemorate, conserve, and promote important natural, scenic, historic, cultural, and recreational resources.  National Heritage Areas are partnerships among the National Park Service, states, and local communities, in which the National Park Service supports state and local conservation through federal recognition, seed money, and technical assistance.  Unlike lands within the National Park System, which are federally owned and managed, lands within heritage areas remain in state, local, or private ownership or a combination thereof. NHA Management plans require the locally led board and staff to outline marketing work, their partner relationships, educational services, and grant work for museums and heritage sites. 

Laws establishing national heritage areas often contain provisions intended to address concerns about potential loss of, or restrictions on use of, private property resulting from National Heritage Area designation.  For example, Public Law 116-9, which established the six newest National Heritage Areas and was signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 12, 2019, included various private property provisions.  These provisions stated that designation of the new National Heritage Areas would not abridge the rights of any property owner; require any property owner to permit public access to the property; alter any land use regulation; or diminish the authority of the state to manage fish and wildlife, including the regulation of fishing and hunting within the National Heritage Area.

Supporters see National Heritage Areas as generally more desirable than other types of land conservation.  They often prefer the designation of National Heritage Areas to other federally established designations, because the lands remain in nonfederal ownership and are administered locally.  

In March 2021 the Congressional Research Office released a report providing facts about NHAs: (https://fas.org/sgp/ crs/misc/RL33462.pdf).

National Heritage Area Funding

National Heritage Areas might receive funding from a wide variety of sources.  Congress typically determines federal funding for National Heritage Areas in annual appropriations laws for Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies.  National Heritage Areas can use federal funds for many purposes, including staffing, planning, and executing projects.  The fiscal year 2021 appropriation for the National Park Service for assistance to heritage areas was $23.9 million, including $22.9 million for grantmaking and direct support and just over $1 million for administrative support.

National Heritage Areas leverage an average of $5.50 in public-private partnership funding for every $1.00 of federal investment which aids in creating jobs, generating revenue for local governments, and sustaining local communities through revitalization and heritage tourism.

The Board of Directors for the Kansas Nebraska Heritage Area Partnership is currently working to establish non-profit status in both states and gather the funding necessary for a feasibility study.  The feasibility study provides the U.S. Congress and the National Park Service with the information they need to determine if designation is suitable. 

What National Heritage Areas Are Not

With the change of administration and new policies being introduced, some may have confused National Heritage Areas as being tied to the 30×30 initiative. These are not related in any way. With 55 designated NHAs over a span of 37 years, there is not a single case of any land rights being impacted. National Heritage Areas are not national park service units. An NHA designation does not affect private property rights or impose land use controls, nor can it assume any ownership of land inside its defined boundary. All individuals, organizations, and/or towns within the area have the choice to participate voluntarily to enjoy the benefits of an NHA or remain autonomous. 

KNHAP is providing educational webinars via Zoom and Facebook, called the Rural Tourism Series, twice each month. The hour-long presentations feature panelists from each state, KNHAP board members, and topic experts. In 2021 the webinar featured speakers from Kansas Tourism, Nebraska Tourism Commission, Nebraska Main Street Network, Kansas By-way and Agritourism, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, Freedom’s Frontier NHA, Kansas Sampler Foundation,  Homestead National Monument, and more.

For more information about Kansas Nebraska Heritage Area Partnership follow them at www.facebook.com/KNHeritage, or contact Executive Director Kim Wilson at kwilson4@unl.edu or (765) 427-9643.

KNHAP Board: Ashley Olson – Willa Cather Foundation NE, Jenna Bartja – Nebraska Tourism Commission NE, Carol Schlegel – McCook/Red Willow Tourism NE, Roger Jasnoch – Visit Kearney NE, Luke Mahin – Republic County Economic Development KS, Kelly Gourley – Lincoln County Economic Development KS, Shaley George – National Orphan Train Complex KS, Kyle Peterson – Mitchell County Historical Society Museum KS, Caryl Hale, Norton KS, Jarrod McCartney – Red Cloud Tourism & Commerce NE, Sue Stringer – Kansas Agritourism KS, Kristin Malek – University of Nebraska – Lincoln NE, Kim Wilson – NE Executive Director of KNHAP University of Nebraska – Lincoln. 

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About Kansas Nebraska Heritage Area Partnership

KNHAP is the only grassroots organization connecting communities and attractions between 49 North Central Kansas and South Central Nebraska counties while acting as a catalyst for economic development through cultural heritage tourism. Volunteers from rural areas in both states serve on the committee exploring potential feasibility of this project in the region.

Location: 49 counties in north central Kansas and south central Nebraska

Total Region Population: 652,668

Major Highways: I-70 and I-80 

Counties in potential feasibility study area: 

Kansas – 26: Marshall, Washington, Republic, Jewell, Smith, Phillips, Norton, Decatur, Sheridan, Graham, Rooks, Osborne, Mitchell, Cloud, Clay, Riley, Pottawatomie, Trego, Ellis, Russell, Lincoln, Ellsworth, Ottawa, Saline, Dickinson, Geary.

Nebraska – 23: Gage, Jefferson, Thayer, Nuckolls, Webster, Franklin, Harlan, Furnas, Red Willow, Saline, Fillmore, Clay, Adams, Kearney, Phelps, Gosper, Frontier, Seward, York, Hamilton, Hall, Buffalo, Dawson.