The Business of History: Constitution Square manager strives to keep history alive

February 02, 2004|HERB BROCK

As manager of Constitution Square State Historic Site, Brenda Willoughby has welcomed Kentucky governors, college presidents, nationally-known historians and people from most of the United States and many foreign countries to experience an important chapter in the state's history at the corner of Main and Second streets.

"I enjoy all our visitors, no matter who they are and where they come from, but my favorite tour groups are the school kids," said Willoughby, adding that school groups are charged a special tour group rate of $1 per child. "They come from districts all over the area, plus the Lexington area, and we also have groups from private schools."

The main reason the school children are her favorites is because they are "so eager to learn" about the history behind the park and the role the 18th century buildings played in the state's history.

"We involve the kids in scavenger hunts. At each building, there is a paper with some question on it, and the kids then go around the park to find the answer," Willoughby said.


The scavenger hunts appeal both to the children's interest in history and their sense of competition, she said.

"They do want to win, but I think it's more abour learning than winning," Willoughby said. "They know that this park represents their Kentucky heritage and they want to learn as much as they can about their state's history. Many of them return to the park with their parents, and then they become the tour guides, the history teachers.

"Their enthusiasm makes my job so rewarding. We want to make this place more than just a group of old buildings, a group of little museums. We want history to come alive for the people who visit us, especially for the children."

History came alive - or at least Willoughby hoped it did - for some 64,000 people in 2003. That figure includes all the individuals, families and tour groups that came by the park, plus the thousands of people who attended special events there, including the quadrennial Rally on the Square for statewide political candidates in April, events related to the annual Great American Brass Band Festival in June, a ceremony honoring local military veterans, and the annual Constitution Square Festival in September, which draws the largest daily crowds of the year to the park.

The number of visitors has declined somewhat in the last couple of years, she said, and that mainly has been due to the reduction in travel by Americans concerned about security in the aftermath of 9-11, periods of high gas prices and the impact of a sluggish economy on travel and entertainment budgets.

Not surprisingly, the park's gift shop also has felt the effects, said Willoughby. Sales at the shop, about 85 percent of whose inventory is comprised of Kentucky-made or Kentucky theme products, have slipped somewhat in recent years, she said.

Gift shop sales average $85,000 to $90,000 a year. The overall annual budget for the park is about $165,000.

"Our shop is the heart of our operation, not just because of what it means to us revenue-wise but also because we have a place where we meet our visitors," Willoughby said. "The shop is where we not only can record our revenue but also the number of people who visit us."

The shop, located at the corner of West Walnut and Second streets, used to be occupied by the Danville-Boyle County Chamber of Commerce. When the chamber moved out in 1994, Willoughby and a colleague on the park staff came up with the idea of converting the building into a gift shop for the park.

"Before we had this building, we really had no way to meet our visitors, let alone count them. We had our little office building in the middle of the park, but most people went by it or around it," she said. "Since we've had this shop, we can capture our visitors, plus, frankly, some income from sales of our merchandise. We can meet and greet them and give them our brochures and other information. We can find out where they're from, what they're interested in. And, of course, we can take them on guided tours if they want."

Genealogy brings people to Danville

Aside from the crowds attending the special events and the school groups that are taken on scavenger hunts, visitors also include genealogists and people looking up names for their family trees and trying to find the roots of those trees as well as historians and history buffs.

"Genealogy has become so big the last few years, and that has generated a lot of visitors to the park," Willoughby said. "People in search of their family history or the history of this part of Kentucky or even the state as a whole are drawn here because Danville is in the central part of the state and it has a reputation as playing a central role in the whole history of the state."

Central Kentucky News Articles