National Heritage Areas

Images from Erie Canal, Yuma, and Hudson Valley NHAs


Bridge over canal


art work

Interview with Ana Koval, Executive Director
Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor

March 30, 2009

As someone who has been involved in the Heritage Areas Program for many years, how would you describe its evolution?

The heritage areas model provides a very flexible framework. Each area has been able to customize its programs to meet the changing needs of its community as time goes on.

Here is an example. When the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor was first designated, places like Joliet, Illinois were in very depressed shape economically. Now, the city is more visited and dynamic. The needs have changed and we have been able to tailor our programs to fit with those changes. We also have an evolving set of partnerships, as some groups leave or are disbanded, others move in to take their place.

How has designation as a National Heritage Area changed your region? Your community? Your area's landscape?

It has really brought the people together and given them a reason to work as one for a shared goal.

Illinois has many units of government (state, city, county, etc…) but all the municipalities within the heritage area share something. Designation has brought them all together, along with members of the private sector and non-profits. The area is like a big pie with lots of little pieces. Groups interested in natural preservation come together with groups interested in historic preservation and they in turn come together with groups interested in tourism. Designation has given them all a common interest.

Please give an example of one activity/event/item produced by your heritage area that you are most proud of.

The first thing would be our driving tour. It is 75 miles long and has 120 signs posted along the route. You can't drive directly along the canal so we picked a series of scenic roads to feature. These highlight the natural, cultural, and historic landscapes of the canal as well as parks and museums along the way.

The tour gives us an opportunity to tell a larger story. Each individual site has its own story, of course, but this helps fit them into the larger framework of the regional story and also the American story.

The tour links together smaller places and sites that, individually, might not get many visitors, but if they are part of a day trip, people will go and visit them all together.

Chicago Magazine featured our tour in an article on weekend getaways for their April, 2009 issue. We are very proud of that.

We also held a sesquicentennial celebration in 1999 that brought together groups from around the area. The celebration lasted a full year. We put together a 16 page guide to that was placed inside copies of the Chicago Tribune. I get people telling me that they saved that guide and used it all yeart.

Do you think the heritage area model of land stewardship is one that holds potential for the future? Why?

The best part of the program is its regional nature. It works better than small individual sites trying to manage things on their own and better than larger governments (such as states) trying to manage things where the interests of a region could get lost in the larger bureaucracy.

The key is flexibility. Each newly designated heritage area will have its own needs, and these needs will inevitably change over time. As economic conditions improve or worsen these needs will be different and evolve. Heritage area designation gives the gift of time for an area to come together and build tourism.

At the core of it is that people like to feel good about the place where they live and work. Heritage area designation provides a way for that to happen.