Editor's note: The top of this story has been edited in response to a comment below.
The state government is pursuing a beautiful idea: Create a groundbreaking marketing project covering Puget Sound and the Pacific Coast of Washington State, with the goal of boosting the tourism economy in tough times and honoring the region'ês maritime heritage. The Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation has just released a feasibility study blessing the notion, one of many steps toward Congressional action to make the project happen. But given tight times and the experience of another, similar idea in southwest Washington, the project may run straight into the meat grinder of the country'ês bad mood and cranky Tea Party sympathizers.
The study, commissioned in 2008, contains no surprises. Folks working on heritage issues for years, including myself, knew it would call on Congress to designate the saltwater shoreline and waterways of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Pacific Coast from Cape Flattery to Pacific County a National Heritage Area. If created today, it would be the country'ês 50th heritage area, and the first to focus solely on maritime heritage.
Designation would be mostly symbolic — as if Congress ordered a giant sign placed on the shoreline of Puget Sound reading, 'êThis is an important place. Come visit and spend some money.'ê
The heritage area would be run by a not-for-profit — the report singles out the respected Washington Trust for Historic Preservation as a good candidate — which would get funding from a variety of sources, including the federal government. Total budget: about $500,000 in start-up costs and an additional $500,000 a year in operating expenses, according to the study. The money would be used to promote the heritage area, enticing tourists and locals to visit dozens of tall ships, maritime museums, lighthouses, and other attractions in western Washington. There might even be some money for grants to help heritage organizations with their own promotion.
Bottom line: The heritage area would generate jobs while raising the profile and prestige of places such as Port Townsend, home to the Northwest Maritime Center, a brand-new exhibit and education space on the city'ês waterfront. A designation could help historic ships such as the Comanche, a huge World War II-era tugboat struggling to make ends meet and preserve the memories of the veterans who served on her. If it were part of a heritage area, Comanche might have an easier time convincing foundations and donors to give money.
But supporters of this common-sense, authentically conservative strategy face enormous hurdles, starting with the Obama administration. As Knute Berger reported in February, the president has proposed cutting the federal heritage area program budget in half, as well as eliminating other preservation programs. Obama argues that the programs can'êt demonstrate a return on investment, despite the direct experience of heritage organizations that have used federal grants to hire workers and buy products to fix up buildings and old ships.
The newest and biggest obstacle is the country'ês bad mood. It'ês already killed another heritage area idea in the Northwest. Earlier this month, ShoreBank Enterprise Cascadia, a not-for-profit bank with offices in Ilwaco and Portland, backed out of a partnership with the National Park Service to create a national heritage area covering the Washington and Oregon counties surrounding the mouth of the Columbia River. The idea was a hit in Oregon. But according to the Longview Daily News, some property owners in 'êgovernment-wary'ê Wahkiakum County 'êfeared the designation . . . would lead to property rights restrictions.'ê Residents worried about non-existent rules for 'êwhat color they could paint their barn.'ê
Reassurances that Congress could write the designation law to protect property rights failed to sway the landowners. ShoreBank decided the idea wasn'êt worth the headache. "We are in such an anti-government moment," Cathlamet Mayor George Wehrfritz and heritage area supporter told the Daily News. "I'm amazed this little project could be interpreted as some deep, dark scheme to take people's property."
Who would have thought that the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation — the state agency that fights to preserve our common heritage — could be a Trojan horse for the federal government'ês hidden conspiracy to take away our property rights. Of course, that'ês paranoid nonsense. The study goes out of its way to say private property is protected under the heritage area law. But the tea-party right might cry 'êYou'êre lying!'ê and be believed, thus scuttling the heritage area.
The next step for the heritage area is in the hands of the National Park Service; it must carry the proposal to Capitol Hill and persuade skittish lawmakers to sign on. But then, maybe we shouldn'êt trust the NPS. Don'êt its rangers wear those scary hats and green uniforms that make them look like police?