The Business of History: Mercer draws tourists but some sites struggle to keep crowds coming

February 02, 2004|ANN R. HARNEY

HARRODSBURG - Harrodsburg and Mercer County are awash in history from the first settlement west of the Alleghenies and the oldest street in the state to Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill.

The Kentucky Heritage Council lists 479 registered and inventory sites in Mercer County, with 192 of those sites in the city.

"Everything related to our area is history," said Karen Hackett, director of Harrodsburg-Mercer County Tourism Commission. According to the 2002 Economic Impact Report, 844 people are employed in Mercer County in tourism-related businesses.

That's down a little, Hackett said, but generally the business of history is improving from the levels just after 9-11 and as the economy has improved. "To the best of my knowledge, tourism remains Mercer County's No. 1 industry." It brings $37.5 million a year into the county, she said.


However, one of the largest historic sites in Mercer County is Shakertown, and there, the business is dismal, but the historic village has good company.

"Attendance at historic sites has been going down since the late 1980s," said James Thomas, president and CEO of Shaker Village. He listed Colonial Williamsburg, Sturbridge Village, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, George Washington's Mount Vernon and Old Salem in North Carolina.

"They had a miserable year, and I probably could give you 20 more," Thomas said. "Americans have a declining interest based on the fact that they don't know history. This is a problem of national proportions. If you don't know where you've been, how can you know where you're going?"

The numbers show him to be correct. In 1989, there were 166,000 paid admissions to Shaker Village. In 2001, there were 98,000 paid admissions, and Thomas said some of that drop can be blamed on 9-11, but in 2003, the paid admissions dropped to 78,000.

"These are people who paid to go through the buildings, but they are the same people who stay here and shop here," Thomas said. "It's dropped 20,000 in two years."

Through the 1990s until recently, the Shakertown work force has dropped by attrition. The jobs people leave are not being filled.

"At the end of last year, we dropped several positions because of the loss of business. We don't know when we're coming out of this. If the economy improves the tourism economy, we can add more staff. I hope our numbers will improve."

Fortunately, not all of Mercer County's history businesses have had grim numbers recently. Chuck Dedman, innkeeper at Beaumont Inn, said the number of people coming to Harrodsburg in search of history seems to be increasing.

"It's a significant part of our business," he said. "We get everybody from genealogists to people visiting historic sites. It's more than you would think for us. There has been quite a reawakening of people in search of their roots."

Some of the oldest records in the state are in the Mercer County clerk's vault, and on most days, there are people in the old records room researching deeds and marriages and orders from what now is called Mercer County Fiscal Court.

"Groups of people and families want to see Shaker Village, Old Fort Harrod, Constitution Square in Danville and the re-enactment of the Battle of Perryville. They are on a history trail vacation, and we love it," Dedman said.

Visits to Fort Harrod State Park also were up last year, said Joan Huffman, park superintendent. "The last couple of years, I've noticed it leveling off, and this past year, we had an increase in visitation and gift shop sales. It looks as if it's getting better; I'm optimistic and am hoping it's going to get better."

Mike Tuttle, general manager of the Fort Harrod Drama and producer of the summer show, said there has been a drop in attendance, but he sounds optimistic, too. "In the past two years, there has been a general downtrend in historic outdoor drama," he said. "It looks like things are coming back up a bit."

The drama's biggest problem in 2003 was water, Tuttle said, and more particularly, rain. There were eight rain outs in 2003, up from two in 2002 and none in 2001. The production gets ready for a show, no matter what the conditions at the time. Sometimes the show has to be stopped in the middle if rain and lightening make it unsafe, but people attending get a rain check. That's hardly the worst.

"It's the nights it rains right up to show time and then stops," Tuttle said. "We go ahead with the show to a very small crowd. The worst I remember was a night it was going to rain and we had seven people show up."

To attract larger audiences, the production has added more crowd pleasers. Maybe the most popular is when an actor on stage is set on fire. "It's never done in live theater," Tuttle said. "We don't do it when the ground is wet."

Tuttle said word of mouth is the most effective advertising for the drama, and he credits a national publication for adding audience members. "One of the best is we were featured in Southern Living magazine. We had more people come in because of that than all of the advertising we bought."

And then there is a degree of complacency. "Over the last 10-20 years, regionally we started to slip a little," he said. "A lot of people in the area don't realize we're still open."

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