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Utah challenged to get maximum economic benefit from its history

Utah's history is worthless. Well, not really.

Utahns just act like it is whenever they give away history for free to any Tom, Dick and Harry tourist who happens through town. Particularly considering Tom, Dick and Harry are more than willing to pay for the experience."If we want to preserve history, if we want to perpetuate it, then we have to find ways to extract the value out of history," said Wilson Martin, the deputy state historic preservation officer and one of the driving forces behind Utah's development of a "heritage tourism industry."

"The government resources are no longer there to sustain history, which is why the new paradigm is so important. We are trying to find ways of bringing business sense to history, ways of making history pay its own way."

Martin, along with fellow Utahns Susan Holt of the Utah Division of State History and Cleal Bradford of the Four Corners Heritage Council, were featured speakers this week for the 51st National Trust for Historic Preservation conference in Santa Fe where they pitched the "new paradigm."

In effect, the development of heritage tourism is seen as a silver bullet by Utah history officials and economic development gurus. The heritage industries generate the money needed to preserve and interpret local histories, thereby adding new dimensions to the local quality of life, as well as jobs.

According to a National Trust study, tourists who visit cultural and historic attractions spend on average $615 per visit, compared with $425 for all U.S. travelers. They also spend an average of 4.7 nights away from home, compared with 3.3 nights for other travelers.

And in the tourism industry, getting people to stay longer and spend more money is what it's all about.

Utah and Virginia are considered model states for the development of heritage tourism models. Utah's shining example is Sanpete County, where several communities have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovating historic structures, fostering businesses that are focused on the local Mormon pioneer heritage and promoting those heritage values to tourists.

The result, Martin said, is new motels filled to capacity every night. Fifteen years ago there was no tourist industry in Sanpete County.

The state is also looking at capitalizing on other heritage values, including its railroad and mining history, the military history, its ranching heritage and the legacy of historic trails that made Utah literally the crossroads of the West.

Under the new model, those elements of Utah history will be preserved through free market forces that will generate jobs and generate revenue that governments can put back into historical preservation programs.

It's not just about sprucing up downtown districts. It's an attitude that people will pay money to experience the local culture and government no longer should subsidize the experience.

The paradigm shift does not need to be about creating a new industry where one does not exist. It can mean a refocusing of existing resources, he said.

For example, under the old model of tourism, volunteer tour guides - usually retired folks associated with the local historical society - get aboard tour buses and take visitors through the community attractions.

Under the new model, the tour guide would be a paid professional whose job is to entertain tourists. The guide also sells tapes of local musical groups and maybe even a recipe book. He takes the bus to the handicraft shop and artist gallery where people actually get off and spend money. The guide is also knowledgeable about the local history, myth and legend.

There are a fair number of skeptics who believe history and culture should not be marketed for top dollar.

But the realities of today's political climate is there is less local and state government money earmarked for historic preservation.

For example, Congress has eliminated $3 million from the budget of National Trust for Historic Preservation, the largest and most influential of all preservation organizations.

State historic preservation officers in dozens of states are now developing heritage tourism master plans.