National heritage area bill awaits Bush's signature

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A national heritage area in parts of eastern Kansas and western Missouri could be a huge asset to Bourbon County and surrounding areas, Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Judy Billings said.

Billings, who spearheaded a grassroots effort to persuade the U.S. Congress to enact federal legislation that would designate about 29 Kansas counties and 12 Missouri counties as a national heritage area, presented details of the plan to about 30 local residents during a town hall meeting Monday in the Great Hall at the Fort Scott National Historic Site.

Included among the 29 Kansas counties listed in the bill are six in Southeast Kansas, including Bourbon, Linn, Miami, Anderson, Allen and Crawford.

The proposed national heritage area contains seven national historic landmarks, 32 properties on the National Register of Historic Places, and seven properties identified as having been points on the Underground Railroad by which many slaves escaped to freedom.

Legislation recently passed by the House and Senate awaits the signature of President Bush before the region is officially designated as the Freedom's Frontier Bleeding Kansas Heritage Area, which will hopefully happen sometime next month, Billings said.

The purpose of the bill is to unite a number of historic sites and attractions related to the Bleeding Kansas era under an integrated plan to bring overdue attention to events in Eastern Kansas and Western Missouri that preceded and contributed toward the Civil War.

A heritage area, in the physical sense, is a geographic region marked by important historic, cultural, natural and recreational resources, united by important shared stories.

Conceptually, a heritage area can improve opportunities for economic development and tourism in any state where one is located. The NPS currently oversees about 24 national heritage areas across the U.S.

"I am not an historian," Billings said. "I think history is an important part of ourselves. The goal is to connect these stories. We need to start working together more to tell a complete story. This is not a small project. It won't be done tomorrow. It's going to take a long time."

Designation as a national heritage area lends credibility to the importance of the region's shared story and puts it in the national spotlight, a written statement from the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau said. Designation also provides funding and other resources for the National Park Service to tell the story of the people who settled the Kansas Territory and the people who live in Kansas today, the statement said.

"It's more of a strategy than a region," Billings said.

A national heritage area also enhances homeland and the inherent strengths of urban and rural communities, and it is also more likely to receive federal funding, Billings said.

Communities across America work in partnership with several agencies and organizations to create more liveable and economically viable regions.

The focus of the heritage area has been on Bleeding Kansas, a violent period from 1854-1861 when voters determined whether Kansas would enter the Union as either a free state or a slave state. Kansas became Freedom's Frontier as armed militias began fighting that would lead to the Civil War and the legal end of slavery.

Billings said the development of a heritage area requires careful listening, thoughtful visioning, and the willingness of participants to act on goals.

"It's a constant learning process," she said. "We need to get our boats seaworthy. There is no real road map for how we do this. We're learning as we go."

The Senate Bill passed in July 2005 and passed in the House shortly afterward, Billings said. If the heritage area receives national designation, the term "Bleeding Kansas" would drop off its official name, creating the Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area.

A volunteer group of historians, citizens, and government officials has worked for several years to create a master plan that would have to be approved by the Secretary of the Interior. The plan details Fort Scott's story and how it ties into the entire designated heritage area, Billings said.

Future plans for the group include finding a consultant who would help facilitate meetings, locating funding partners, raising money and obtaining resources, Billings said.

"We need to think long term and collectively," she said.

The new national heritage area would receive about $10 million over a 15-year period, with funds being matched by several organizations involved in the plan, she said. That money will be spent on studies, interpretive exhibits and programs, preservation projects, grants, and heritage area signs identifying points of interest.

U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback presented the legislation in 2004, and U.S. Rep. Jim Ryun took the lead on getting the bill through the House in 2005.