Keynote Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership

My first exposure to the idea that Burlington’s shoreline had any other significance than as a large body of water was when I was 15 and my mother gave me an LP record called Champlain Valley Songs. I grew up in Morrisville and had gone away to school in New Hampshire. She may have chosen the title to remind me of home. I was 15 and living in a small room at Phillips Exeter. I missed home terribly.

Here is the liner copy for the album:

This recording explores the rich musical heritage of the area surrounding Lake Champlain in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The songs were selected from a collection of North Country folklore and ballads compiled by historian Marjorie Porter.

Straddling the U.S.-Canadian border, the region boasts legends of the Iroquois and Algonquin who fished and hunted there, and of Englishmen, Frenchmen, and colonial Yankees who all fought for control over the valley that was known as the “gate of the country.” Singing in French and English, Pete Seeger perfoms folk songs that embody the captivating history of the region.

Listening today to the diverse collection of songs that included: The Seneca Canoe Song, Isabeau s’y promeneau, The Banks of Champlain, Les Raftsmen and The Shantman’s Life, I remembered as a child listening again and again to that album and how it brought me to an understanding that a coherent geographical area could come to be defined not only by its geography, but also by the stories and culture of its past and present inhabitants.

As a child, I had often seen the manifest visual grandeur of the Lake but never imagined how much it had been enriched by the social, cultural and economic overlays of the many peoples who have lived there for millennia. This was a defining moment for me as a young student and introduced a ghostly new dimension for me to the forests, mountains, rivers, quarries, brooks, and hill farms I grew up in.

You all are both the stewards and the marketers of Champlain’s substantial real and cultural assets. This makes sense, as it takes a flow of revenue to preserve, articulate, and promote the Lakes many assets to those who will come and spend money enjoying and learning from them.

Before we talk about opportunities, I’d like to say a few words about systemic threats and our collective values that will determine the success of your mission.

I am not going to try and underwhelm you with my lack of knowledge about science. No one knows better than you the current state of health of the Lake and the basin that feeds it, the combined threats of long-term rising ambient temperatures and periodic flooding, the influx of agricultural and residential phosphorus and sewage, and the run-off from urban parking lots, streets and storm drains all have taken their toll. You know this better than I and with your many partners are working hard to mitigate damage done and to prevent further damage.

Let’s talk first about our values as a society and how they affect your work and your vision.

I know from my life-long work with non-profits that, as a nation, we still have not learned that smart, strategic social investments usually create valuable returns and engender new possibilities for growth.

My wife and I went to the Quadricentennial Celebration in Quebec City. I am sure many of you saw the extraordinary multi-media event that was one outcome of the millions spent by the Quebec government to celebrate the event and to draw tourists to Quebec. It worked and according to reports the investment paid off handsomely.

Our earnest efforts to celebrate the Quad involved much hard work and creativity, but lacked the necessary state and federal investments to create a substantive return in tourism.

Sadly in the US, we do not as a rule invest in our cultural heritage except in the occasional earmark. When we do, it is usually ad hoc political pork rather than a strategic economic investment in our environment and our cultural heritage.

As in healthcare, we differ from much of the world in this respect. Yes, we have the beleaguered and always politically vulnerable NEA and NEH and willy-nilly federal and state agencies that eke cultural grants out of their budgets to help protect our natural, working and built environments, historical artifacts and stewardship institutions. But we have not made it a national priority as so many countries have.

Take a look at the British Landmark Trust website and see how they have managed to both preserve and protect their many historic sites in the UK and create a durable revenue stream by renting them out to visitors and guests. My wife and I have rented several in Britain and one of their farms in Vermont, the Amos Brown House. The Landmark Trust USA deserves the support of our federal tax dollars to expand its reach. The model can and should be either expanded or replicated throughout the basin.

Look at the National Parks Service, the steward of our natural crown jewels. The severe budget cuts imposed on the service belie a fundamental misunderstanding of the park system’s positive economic impact nationally and locally. In 2010, 281 million visitors spent $31B travelling in, to, and from the parks. Why is this not a good investment? It was in Quebec. It is in Switzerland, Austria, France, Belgium, Britain, Sweden, Cuba and Costa Rica. We need to revisit our national priorities and support with tax dollars our natural and man-made endowments.

Another area sadly needing attention is our government policy of supporting the lowest cost means of food production. This means that only commodity producers like Cargill, Dole and the very largest producers can compete.

Here in Vermont, I often hear predictions about the demise of dairy farming, and indeed we only have about 970 farms left, down from 5000 when I was young. Yet Vermont dairy farms still produce the highest quality milk for the NE market – $500M in retail sales, more than any other NE state.

I would suggest to you that the underlying problem which in part puts the lie to our “sacred pollution” problem is more a function of our national policy of trying to produce food at or below the cost of production. Here in this country, we spend about 7% of our expendable income on food we eat at home. That number is three times higher in Europe and much higher in the rest of the world. You already know the deleterious impacts of commodity food production on our landscape, our local economies, our personal health, and the Lake. A farmer who is always just on the edge of making a profit simply does not invest in costly process or technology that might minimize environmental damage.

The renaissance of community – based agriculture – little more than a return to where we were 70 years ago in this region – will grow along side our strong dairy industry, not eclipse it. The artisan cheeses, wines, spirits, beers, breads, condiments, grass-fed beef, pork and lamb all enrich and replenish the early food traditions of the Lake Basin and form the basis for your agri-tourism and wine trail initiatives. Their total economic impact however in agriculture is still well below 15%. We need to retain our dairy industry and make it profitable by removing perverse incentives at the federal level. It is important to note to that many farms like Blue Spruce in Bridport have managed to make the necessary investments to draw wealth from the land as a viable business and also be a steward of the land they farm.

But the persistence of federal policies and subsidies that keep the cost of commodity food below the cost of production threaten the lifeblood of local, small-scale agriculture by building in perverse incentives that distort market pricing and favor commodity growers and purveyors.

Quite simply, until the price of a lb. of grass-fed beef raised in Addison or Clinton County can be sold for the same price as a lb. of corn-finished beef from a toxic feedlot near a railhead in the Midwest, healthy, locally-produced food raised on small-scale, environmentally-benign farms will be at risk.

Again, European countries are a model, as is our neighbor to the North. Quebec appears to have taken the Dordogne region of France as model for its future agriculture and tourism and has built an extraordinary artisan food culture in less than two decades. When can we expect to see an Atwater Market or Marché Jean Talon in Plattsburgh, Burlington, or Glens Falls?

Okay, I’ve groused about our lack of strategic vision in this country about the lost opportunities to invest in our heritage and the damage caused by food and farm subsidies intended to support commodity agriculture rather than community-based farming. Let me move to say a few words about opportunities.

But first, let me say, how impressed I am with your vision and what you have planned. I read your plan and was very impressed with what you have in the works.

Like you, I believe that, over and above the glorious landscape of the basin, there is a wealth of human culture that enhances the tourism opportunity. The lake has been an inspiration for poets, writers, artists, musicians, historians, and philanthropists as long as it has been inhabited. Each of these communities offers opportunities for development and further appreciation.

Imagine the Vermont Symphony performing music inspired by the Lake and Lar Duggan performing his highly regarded Lake Studies suite, or Pete Sutherland doing a reprise of the Champlain Valley Songs on the South Porch of the Inn at Shelburne Farms. Daniel Lusk, the acclaimed poet, worked with The Maritime Museum and produced a book of poems inspired by the Lake entitled Lake Studies: Meditations on Lake Champlain.  What if one of the museums were to mount a travelling exhibition of curated fine art inspired by the Lake, there are many such opportunities.

In the early seventies, when I was Chair of the VT Arts Council, we got an NEA grant to produce and travel the Festival des deux mondes, a celebration of Franco- American and Cajun culture. How about such a travelling festival today that comprises the diverse music and dance cultures of the lake in the peak of tourist season?  The authors who have written about the Lake, such as Howard Frank Mosher and others offer additional opportunity either at the Burlington Book Festival or as a stand-alone event for writers and readers.

I do not mean to give short shrift to outdoor sports, but I believe that that is an area well-covered generally in the for-profit sector. It would be great however, to grow one signal international event or venue like perhaps an ice-boat competition or antique wooden boat competition that draws international visitors and media.

On the venue side, my favorite example lies in the middle of nowhere in the Dalarna region of Sweden near Lake Siljan. Jot down this url  Dalhalla. SE. Click on English  or “translate” and then “history.”  Explain.

In closing, let me say a few words about branding. You are all familiar with the German epithet “drek” and its English counterpart acronym standing for:

D – How are we different?

R – How are we relevant?

E – Are we esteemed?

K – Are people knowledgeable about us?

Constituents: The media (PR), Visitors, Donors, Community (real/virtual)

It is worthwhile if you have not already done so, to answer these questions yourselves in writing and to share your responses.

With limited funding sources, your dilemma becomes do I spend my money promoting the regional brand or my local brand, for example — Ticonderoga, NY or the Champlain Valley Heritage Project? You may also be subject to restrictions based on the source of your promotional funds as to how you can allocate them.

Both Ticonderoga and CVNHP are important brands. To be effective as a group you must agree on branding hierarchy. The hierarchy may vary with different promotional initiatives. For example “Visit Ticonderoga’s historic past, a Champlain Valley Heritage Partner”

Here the locale is the promotional initiative but the partnership is always evident. In a larger regional promotion, the CVNH Partnership may be the principle brand focus with all the membership locales and their unique tourism benefits clearly articulated as sub-brands. We can talk more about this in the discussion afterwards.

Finally, I would argue that the single most effective investment you could make would be a state-of-the-art regional website articulating the great beauty and treasures of the region including all its constituent partner communities. It would portray the region’s historical, cultural, environmental, agricultural, sport, and gustatory assets and travel options and would link to the area’s transactional hospitality sites.

People learn from both data and story and the site would include both to entice visitors to come. The wine and spirit trails and the agri-tourism farm-stay opportunities you are working on would all be cartographic overlays selectable by the site visitor. This will cost a quarter to half a million done right, but will make your partnership unique and I believe will stimulate more business than any other possible initiative. Travel is now planned principally on the Web.

Finally, take everything I say with a grain of salt. I am, after all a fiction writer.

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