Previously, I caught you up on my time here in Louisiana, told you a bit about the local history, and promised to fill you in on what I’ve noticed about heritage tourism here in Natchitoches. Now, don’t let this article fool you, because it will be pretty positive. This isn’t to say this place is perfect. These are just the features that I think we could adapt to Mason County, and there’s no sense in including other features that don’t work as well.
Natchitoches (Nack-a-tish for those of you that didn’t catch last week’s article) feels a lot like Point Pleasant, and that’s what got me to thinking about this. Like Point, they also have a rebuilt frontier fort, Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site. I spoke with the director at the Fort while I was there, and they regularly count over 12,000 visitors a year. That’s visitors that come through their visitor center and pay the $5 entrance fee (so not the locals). Now, according to the State Parks administration, Tu-Endie-Wei brings in over 29,000 visitors a year. My guess is that 12,000 of those are during the Mothman Festival (that was their count last year), leaving 16,000 during the regular year.
So we’re doing pretty good, but the question becomes, how do we get those 16,000 tourists to Fort Randolph and actually tie the two together? I think this could be easily done by targeting the exhibits in the Mansion House. Right now, they cover a little bit of everything, from Native American through the Civil War and up to the DAR. It’s more Point Pleasant’s history than the Battle of Point Pleasant, the reason the park was founded. Start on the top floor with Native Americans, like it is now. The second floor as the Battle and aftermath, and you can also work the tavern into this part. Then leave the DAR meeting room on the main floor and work in the park’s foundation. That will help get some interest in Fort Randolph, and if it could be opened every weekend, at least half of these tourists would also go there.
Following the timeline, the second set of historical attractions in Natchitoches are the plantations. There are roughly 13 near town, and 3 of those are open to the public. Oakland and Magnolia are a part of the national park I’m working at, Melrose is private, and approximately 30,000 people visit these plantations every year. We have, as far as my research can tell, 14 “surviving” plantations in Mason County. (Three of those are ruins, but still technically there.) If even one could be made into a house museum and Old 35 is marketed as a “scenic drive” or “heritage trail” or something, that’s easily 15,000 visitors a year, especially once the new Rt. 35 is open. The kicker here is that the plantation, to set itself apart, must also have either a special story or surviving outbuildings, something that very few still have.
Finally, downtown. Like Point, their downtown and surrounding residential historic districts are mostly 1860-1920. Granted, their historic district is bigger, but so is their town. Ours could easily be the same size if we expanded our district to include everything that’s historic rather than just Main Street.
Like Point, they have a beautiful riverfront that they use for concerts and events. Unlike Point, it’s complemented by fully restored and rehabilitated buildings. In ten years (2007-2016), Louisiana generated over 32,000 jobs and $1.6 million in paychecks (each person made about $52,000). For $2.7 billion in preservation work, there was roughly $9.5 billion in new business revenue. And, almost half of these tax credit projects were done by small businesses. In a similar time frame, there was only $110 million in tax-credit preservation work in West Virginia, 4 percent of what was going on in Louisiana. Those are rookie numbers! Think how nice all of our Main Streets would look if we upped our tax-credit work by 2,500 percent and got up to Louisiana’s level!
So to wrap it up, we’re not doing bad. Our state park is bringing in 16,000 visitors a year (plus however many from the Mothman Festival). The Mothman Museum and River Museum probably bring in 20,000 each and that’s on the low end. Assuming some people only do one thing and not the others, let’s say right now we get 30,000 visitors a year. But what could we be if we use our full potential? If we fully restored our downtown using the historic tax credits, added a plantation museum, and added the future historical society museum, we could easily be looking at 60,000 regular tourists a year. Then, add the Mothman Festival, riverboats, and other events and bring that up to 80,000. I realize this is oversimplifying it, but I think you get the point.
If we use all of our resources, whether that means historic, cultural, natural, economic, etc., we could easily be looking at 80-100,000 tourists coming through Point Pleasant every year. Think of what that could bring for our economy and the jobs it would create. After all, you need hotels, shopping, dining, fast food, gas stations, etc. to provide for all of these tourists.
Throw in Gallipolis, Middleport, and Pomeroy to make it a larger interconnected tourism area, and we could easily be tourism capitol of the entire Ohio Valley.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at email@example.com.