Second in a four-part series about the proposed North Woods and Waters of the St. Croix National Heritage Area, part of St. Croix 360′s partnership with The Heritage Initiative. Part One of this series introduced and defined what is meant by National Heritage Area status.
Community engagement. This is a term that can be a bit of a cliché these days. It can mean many different things to generate community dialogue or to gain community input. In 2010, the citizen-led Heritage Initiative Task Force committed to robust community engagement to determine whether or not the St. Croix watershed region is worthy of designation as a National Heritage Area.
The Community Engagement Timeline & Experience
In August of 2010, the Task Force voted unanimously to begin a study of the entire watershed (8,000 square miles) as a potential National Heritage Area. In February and March of 2011, five full-day briefings were held with business leaders, agencies, community leaders, and other key stakeholders. Taking place in St. Croix Falls, Hinckley, and Spooner, the purpose of the briefings was to gather preliminary responses to the concept. Nearly 130 community leaders participated in these conversations.
Armed with advice from the briefings, the Task Force better understood the need for a larger “study team” to launch a full-blown feasibility study. This team initially included the Task Force itself (12 volunteers from different parts of the watershed), the St. Croix Valley Foundation, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, and two consulting firms: Creative Community Builders and Point Heritage Development Consulting. From June 2011 through May 2013, this study team developed and carried out a comprehensive community engagement strategy. The strategy included a series of community meetings, outreach to elected officials, interviews with capacity advisors, consultation with tribal nations connected to the watershed, and a communications plan. Along the way, the study team grew to include a team to implement the communications plan and nine subject matter experts in the areas of geology, social history, environmental history, cultural resources, tribal history, and regional interpretation.
Sixteen public meetings in communities across the watershed lay at the core of the community engagement strategy. These meetings were organized into three rounds with each round building upon the accomplishments of the previous one. This structure helped create a broad network of citizens and organizations with a shared vision for the future of the region. Included were: 10 Heritage Discovery Workshops (winter and spring 2012); four Regional Gatherings (fall 2012); and a final Heritage Summit (May 2012) where the findings were presented over the course of two sessions. More than 600 people participated directly in these events.
Public Meetings at a Glance
The Heritage Discovery Workshops were held in 10 counties throughout the region and were designed to introduce the concept as well as to consider ways that National Heritage Area designation might help address local needs. The meetings provided the opportunity for participants to share key stories and cultural traditions within the region and to identify existing natural, cultural, historical, and scenic resources. A total of 286 people attended the workshops, representing a combined 10,412 years of experience in the region! This input was captured in an Events Record that can be viewed at www.stcroixheritage.org. In all, participants identified 414 stories and more than 300 important resources.
The Regional Gatherings invited participants to four meetings sites: Shell Lake, Taylors Falls, Hudson, and Hinckley. At these gatherings, findings from the Heritage Discovery Workshops where shared and participants considered the ways in which communities throughout the watershed are interconnected. Potential interpretive themes, resources, and possible boundaries for a National Heritage Area were among the topics of discussion at the Regional Gatherings. Approximately 200 citizens participated in these meetings.
The final community meetings were held in May 2013 with 150 citizens from across the region convening in Taylors Falls, MN. Findings from the two-year study were presented and participants were asked to voice their support for one of four choices to share the region’s history, create economic vitality, and to steward the region’s resources in a way that would protect and honor our heritage: a) pursue National Designation; b) establish a bi-state Heritage Area; c) establish a local Heritage Area; or d) no action. More than 95 percent of participants voted to seek Congressional designation as a National Heritage Area.
Community Engagement in Summary
To gain designation as a National Heritage Area is no easy task, in fact it takes an act of the U.S. Congress. Therefore, a case must be made to Congress and vetted by the Department of Interior that the area under consideration has an over-arching story of national significance to share and the interpretive sites to uphold heritage tourism activities. Citizen review is beginning now of the Feasibility Study that makes the case that this area is deserving of national recognition for its stories and special places. If successful, the North Woods and Waters of the St. Croix National Heritage Area would be our nation’s fiftieth National Heritage Area.
The Feasibility Study is available at www.stcroixheritage.org/feasibility-study or at local libraries around the region. The Heritage Initiative Task Force is interested in feedback from everyone, and has provided a form on the website. Comments and questions can be sent to email@example.com.
Coming next week: The people behind the scenes who have been part of the National Heritage Initiative conversation.