Members of the Willamette Falls Heritage Coalition hope to make history with the West's first National Heritage Area
Trivia question: How many of the United States' 49 National Heritage Areas can be found on the West Coast?
Designated by Congress and overseen by the National Parks Service, National Heritage Areas (NHAs) are "places where historic, cultural and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes." So, at first glance, one would likely assume that there are at least a handful of NHAs in the West with its plentiful landmarks and the historical significance of things like the California Gold Rush and the Oregon Trail.
But as it turns out, this is a trick question. As 2016 nears its end, there are a grand total of zero NHAs in California, Oregon and Washington.
Groups like the Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition are working to change that.
"The coalition has been working on this project officially for at least 10 years," says Siobhan Taylor, who was appointed as executive director of the coalition in September. "The key thing about the coalition is that it really brings key stakeholders from a community of backgrounds and organizations together under one organization, with one common goal that brings credibility, expertise and strength to the purpose of what they're trying to accomplish — which is a National Heritage Area."
While the project began with a more narrow scope around the Willamette Falls and immediate surrounding areas like West Linn and Oregon City, the coalition recently expanded the proposed NHA to include land as far south as Mission Bottom State Park near Salem, as well as the Champoeg State Heritage Area southwest of the falls. Already, the coalition has put together a "Heritage Trail" brochure highlighting 30 attractions in the area and the goal is to unveil an interactive map further down the line.
The idea is to tell the story of the falls — which were a crucial gathering place for the first Native Americans to settle in the area — and how they influenced the growth of culture and industry up and down the Willamette River.
"It's a story that is uniquely Oregon," Taylor said. "That story expands above the falls to areas like Champoeg — where quite frankly Oregon statehood was established, where Oregon treaties with Native American tribes were signed, where a key story of Oregon settlement and statehood and tribal history resides — (and) comes all the way to Mission Bottom in Salem."
The 22-member coalition has plenty of momentum behind it. A feasibility study — which lays out the case for a heritage area in written form — was recently completed and presented to the National Parks Service for review. Meanwhile, the coalition also received a $60,000 grant from the Clackamas County Tourism and Cultural Affairs organization in December.
"What we're going to use that for is three specific components," Taylor said. "We're going to do a market assessment of the whole heritage area ... and it's going to help us look at who we are, what the public understands about us and basically (provide) an assessment of how we compare to the competition — how we compare to all of these other heritage areas and sites in the nation to make us competitive.
"Then we're going to compile a list of our goals, our products and the tools that we have and the tools that we need to become a legitimate, vital, economic driver as a heritage area."
The final step, then, would be to evaluate the economic benefits that would be derived from tourism at an NHA.
"Basically, what is this going to put back into the county and the cities involved and the heritage partners involved?" Taylor said. "What it's going to bring back to them in terms of growing their economy?"
The economic benefits, in Taylor's eyes, could be significant. Across the country, NHAs are estimated to pump about $12.9 billion annually into local economies while supporting 148,000 jobs.
"It should drive a lot of economic development for the communities that are along the 56 river miles," Coalition President Jim Mattis said. "Unlike the Columbia (River), the Willamette River has the potential of being the type of river where you maybe have those river cruises, because there's lots of heritage sites and other sites along the Willamette River where you can stop to do things."
West Linn, of course, would be at the center of it all, given its proximity to the falls as well as other historic landmarks like the Willamette Falls Locks and the West Linn Paper Company mill. A National Heritage Area would also go hand-in-hand with efforts to redevelop waterfront properties in both West Linn and Oregon City.
The area has already been designated as a State Heritage Area — the first in Oregon — but achieving National Heritage Area status is much more difficult, particularly on the West Coast in recent years.
"There's so much on the West coast, and it comes down to territorial behaviors and money," Taylor said. When funds were more readily available, Congress was "designating heritage areas willy nilly all up and down the eastern seaboard. And the standards since then have become tighter because funding has become more restrictive."
Now that the feasibility study has been sent to the National Parks Service, the coalition will wait for feedback before eventually presenting a final copy to Congressman Kurt Schrader.
"We're going to have a launch party, probably in late January or early February, where we will present the official copy of it to Rep. Schrader," Taylor said. "He takes it back to Washington D.C. and we have a bill he presents to Congress asking for approval."
According to the National Parks Service, NHA designation comes with "limited financial and technical assistance" from the federal government.
And what if Congress says no? For Taylor and Mattis, that won't change the importance and potential within what is already a State Heritage Area.
"The beauty and power of this coalition is that we are already acting like a National Heritage Area," Taylor said. "The State of Oregon recognizes us as a heritage area and we will continue to behave and act as one."
"There's enough momentum and interest that we'll keep it going," Mattis said.
"The West deserves one," Taylor added.