clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Frequenting the road less traveled
Alliance wants to turn rural route into a corridor that celebrates and markets area's history, crafts

If speed is the main thing, if all you want to do is get from Point A (say, Salt Lake City) to Point B (say, southern Utah), they have a road for you: I-15 (at least, say, south of Draper).

But if the journey's the thing, if a slower pace mixed with gorgeous scenery and unusual places to visit is more important, if you like to smell the flowers and shop for creative treasures, you also have a road: Heritage Highway 89.U.S. 89 from Fairview in Sanpete County to Kanab in Kane County is definitely "the road less traveled." But a new alliance of business, tourist and historic enterprises hopes to give you -- and others like you from around the world -- even more reasons to choose this route. The Utah Heritage Products Alliance, a non-profit, private business association, wants to create a heritage corridor that would promote handmade, traditional crafts and arts as well as historic sites and events in this part of the state.

Up and down this highway, given the heritage designation by the 1998 Legislature, are little towns, quintessential rural Utah, with a feel, a flavor you don't get anywhere else, says Laurel Christensen, who is working with the alliance in Sanpete County.

In many of these places preservation came about because of poverty. "They were too poor to tear things down and replace them with something better. Now the old things have become valuable," Christensen says.

In Mt. Pleasant, for example, the golden era was after 1890 when the railroad came. A lot of the buildings along Main Street were built then. But with the Depression came economic decline. "People couldn't afford aluminum siding, let alone new buildings," says Mont Bona, who is on the Mt. Pleasant City Council. "Now we have these wonderful old places and a real opportunity to do something with them."

Its time has come

As far as Wilson Martin is concerned, it is an idea that's time has come.

"Highway 89 has such potential," says Martin, associate director of the Utah Historical Society, which is lending support and credence to the project. Unfortunately, he says, we live in an era where history must become economically viable in order to survive. "It would be nice to think we could save things just because they are worth saving," adds Bona, but economics teaches a harder lesson.

Luckily for those who believe in the power of the past, business and tourism are proving to be a strong partnership. "Heritage tourism is the No. 1 reason people travel in the U.S.," notes Martin, citing a 1996 survey that found more than 65 million Americans visited a historic site or museum or attended a music, arts or other cultural event that year. Twenty-seven percent of U.S. adults took at least one trip that included a visit to a historic place or museum that was more than 50 miles from their homes. The survey also shows that this group tends to stay longer and spend more money than other visitors.

"The heritage products and tourism industry is many times larger than the ski industry," says Susan Holt, president of the alliance. And while Utah is not now a major player in this industry, it could be, she says -- if the alliance succeeds.

Reason for optimism

Those involved in the project know that's an important if. They know it will take time and hard work and sophisticated marketing and maybe even a little luck. But they also have reasons for optimism.

The alliance is modeled after similar corridors in North Carolina, the Amish Country of Pennsylvania and sites in New England. The group has studied the North Carolina experience in particular. In western North Carolina, various "heritage craft trails" featuring Appalachian handwork capitalize on visitors who come to the Great Smoky Mountains. These trails have an annual economic impact of approximately $122 million.

"North Carolina gets 2.1 million visitors a year. With the parks and all, we already get 2.4 million visitors," notes Ron Bushman, a rug-maker in Marysvale, who is one of the alliance members. "We're not inventing the wheel. But the numbers are comparable. Anything they do to be successful, we should be able to do here."

The alliance was given $50,000 in seed money from the 1999 Legislature. Eventually, it will become self-supporting. In practice, the alliance is much like the Dairy Commission, says Martin. Under one umbrella, entities with similar interests come together to promote niche marketing. They each pay dues. But by banding together, they can have more impact than they could on their own.

The alliance can provide a wide variety of services to individual members, says Ed Meyer, business development executive with the Utah State Department of Community and Economic Development, who is serving as interim director. "It can provide revolving loan funds, business training, market research, even group insurance."

Eventually, the alliance will publish a catalog and create a Web site to showcase products. The group can sponsor trade and craft shows and, more importantly, market the entire corridor. Eventually, he says, the corridor could be "one, big, huge heritage products mall."

He knows that will take time. "If it were easy, we've have it done by now."

The talent is there

As a first step, the alliance is surveying people up and down the highway to assess both potential and interest. The variety is exceptional, says Meyer, everything from pottery to furniture to rug- and broom-making.

"I'm staggered at the number of talented people in these towns. And not just those with skills they've picked up from their parents and grandparents, although those are significant; but we have an amazing number of degreed artists, those with bachelor's and master's degrees, as well."

So far, 135 members have come on board. Meyer thinks by the time they are done, they could easily have 500 to 1,000, maybe even new people who want to move into the area.

However, many of the people who are producing products now do it as a part-time thing, Meyer says. "If the demand increases to where they have to work full time, how many will want to do that? We don't know. That's not at all the same as working in your spare time."

Eventually, they may want to bring in heritage products from other communities -- jams and jellies from Box Elder County, for example. "This could be a crafts mall for the entire state," Meyer enthuses. You look in shops along the corridor now, he says, "and 80 percent of those products aren't made in Utah. I think we have a tremendous opportunity to turn that around."

The alliance plans to develop a jurying system and establish standards for members so everyone who buys something with a "Utah Heritage Products" tag will know they are getting locally made goods of high quality. This is also one of the big challenges, Meyer says. "There may be people who originally don't meet the standards, so maybe we'll have to offer classes to upgrade their skills."

A wide variety

A heritage product, he says, can be any good or service representative of the local heritage. His list of possibilities is wide open: a Moroni Feed Company diner that sells turkey pizza; a Richfield Museum where a tour guide tells wonderful stories about Butch Cassidy; a woman in Sigurd who rents out bits of her garden -- she does the work and people come and claim their produce in the fall; an Aurora quarry where stonemasons craft benches in a turkey coop; a salt mine in Redmond that provides a tour and samples of salt; a woman in Marysvale who designs replicas of wedding dresses for dolls by looking at wedding pictures.

"Being there, seeing how things are made enhances the experience," Meyer says. But that's not all. There may be dutch-oven dinners and tours of old gold mines and chances to stay in historic bed-and-breakfasts. Events and historic sites are also an important part of the equation.

"The artisans and craftsmen are the foundation, but we don't want to limit it to that. People want the total experience," he says. And in this way, the alliance is hoping to go beyond even what North Carolina is doing.

"As far as we know, the alliance is the first of its kind in the country," says Martin. The more that is involved, the richer the experience will be, he says.

But getting the word out is going to be another challenge. "We have to convince the affluent buying population that now goes to Santa Fe or Amish Country to travel to a new rural area to buy new products. That's not going to happen overnight."

And the success of that mission ultimately depends on both the quality and the uniqueness of the products. "These people, the ones who will pay premium prices, are looking for something no one else offers, something you don't see in every magazine."

But that's the value of having a formal organization, he says. "We can help address those issues. We can help with things that would be very difficult for individuals to deal with. Those things that are the greatest challenges individually are opportunities for the organization."

"The main thing is to enhance a visitor's sense of what Utah is all about," Holt says. "And that's a vision you don't get if you only visit the urban areas." Like everyone else in the state, the alliance is also eyeing the Olympics. They hope to be going strong by 2002. "Maybe we can even lure some of those visitors on a southern Utah journey," Holt says.

This has been a depressed area for a long time, adds Martin. Visitors have gone through, but not many have stopped. "These towns have had all negatives of visitors, none of positives." But with the development of more things to see and do, with more historic bed-and-breakfasts, with more quaint little restaurants, with more chances to shop for truly unique products, in time that could change.

"What we hope," says Bushman, "is that Marysvale can go from being an irritation in the road to being a destination."

Towns are close enough along Highway U.S. 89 that the drive can be one continuous adventure, Christensen says. "This is one place that has not lost that true, rural flavor," she says. And you can go at your own pace, see as much as you want. "That's the beauty of being off the interstate."