UD, community leaders meet to explore Sussex heritage tourism plan
David Ames, director of UD’s Center for Historic Architecture and Design, explains the benefits of developing a heritage tourism industry in Southern Delaware.
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8:06 a.m., May 20, 2009----Sweet potato houses may not be the first attraction a typical Delaware tourist has on their itinerary to visit, but David Ames, director of the University of Delaware's Center for Historic and Architecture and Design, has a strong hunch that is about to change. And heritage tourism is the reason why.

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On Thursday, May 7, Ames spoke before a heritage tourism workshop held at UD's Elbert N. and Ann V. Carvel Research and Education Center in Georgetown, Del. Sussex County town managers, members of historical societies and chambers of commerce, and representatives of local businesses attended to collaborate on ways to develop a heritage tourism industry for southern Delaware.

Heritage tourism is quickly emerging as major trend. According to Ames, a typical heritage tourist will plan three trips a year, and has a special appreciation for authentic experiences, artifacts and activities of a region's past.

Sussex County is at a crossroads, balancing the reality of unprecedented growth with a desire to preserve agricultural land and historic vistas. Heritage tourism meets these challenges by designing itineraries around an appreciation of Delaware's unique and diverse history.

Promoting this type of select tourism can provide much needed economic development to the area. The concept integrates the use of scenic byways and discovery zone locations.

Community leaders, organizations and businesses are asked to be key actors in developing the strategic marketing of lesser known, charming locations and bringing attention to the elements that comprise Delaware's unique heritage.

Christine Bergmark, executive director of Southern Maryland Trails, shared Maryland's success story with the heritage tourism concept. Bergmark told the workshop attendees that fresh approaches to the industry were made possible by strong community involvement.

Southern Maryland Trails focuses on local, hand-made crafts, bed and breakfasts, galleries, businesses and eateries where a unique interactive experience is offered. Sites on their publicized driving trails are designed to “meet the maker” she said. In the five southern coastal counties of Maryland, the heritage tourism concept allows tourists to “feel the countless generations of people who worked the land.”

Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism and one of the workshop presenters said, “We have so many treasures in Southern Delaware. We have to keep rechecking and evaluating how tourist friendly each site is.”

Part of that welcoming involves offering an authentic experience and scene-setting descriptions that reflect an attraction's unique personality. “We have to do more than say this is a great place or it has beautiful scenery,” Thomas explained. “The more literal we are the better.”

Delaware also hopes to lure new tourists to Delaware history and culture by embracing a hot new national trend -- geocaching.

Thomas explained geocaching as a type of scavenger hunt using GPS technology that travelers are seriously pursuing across the nation. Geocaching tourists log into a Web site, download unnamed coordinates of the area they wish to investigate, and, using GPS, track down the precise location of a cache boxes where the participants log their visits and obtain tokens to prove their physical presence at the location.

Thomas hopes to add at least five geocache locations in Southern Delaware. But it is only one way to attract needed tourism.

Sue Fox, of Milton, Del., found the workshop an important first step. An architectural historian, Fox had worked with graduate students identifying Laurel structures for the National Registry of Historical Places.

Fox believes the development of heritage tourism would also benefit those who have made Southern Delaware their new home. “There is a thirst for knowledge about their surroundings. They want to know as much as they can about the area,” Fox said.

Heritage tourism in Southern Delaware will focus its efforts on the development of seven themes: the natural environment, maritime tradition, beach resort communities, historic architecture, agriculture and agritourism, small towns, and religion.

The heritage tourism workshop was the second one of its kind organized by Bill McGowan, director of UD's Coastal Communities Enhancement Initiative (CCEI).

CCEI is a collaboration between the three public outreach arms of the University of Delaware -- Delaware Sea Grant in the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, the Institute for Public Administration in the College of Education and Public Policy, and Cooperative Extension in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, where McGowan also serves as Sussex County community development agent.

“Heritage tourism is a natural for Sussex County,” McGowan said. “While most people think of the resort/beach aspect of Sussex, we have so much more to offer visitors and in turn create economic opportunities for Sussex Countians.”

Ames envisions a conversation that heritage tourism hosts will have with their temporary guests on a variety of topics, each beginning with the question “Did you know ... ?” followed by a fascinating tidbit about Delaware history, culture or architecture.

“All of these structures have human stories to them,” Ames said.

And, that includes sweet potato houses. In the mid-19th century, sweet potatoes were a major production crop in Delaware, peaking in the 1920s. After harvest, the sweet potatoes required a storing process in a specially constructed building -- tall, with double-lap exterior siding, an interior furnace to maintain a constant temperature and a trap door flue located in the floor. Many have fallen in disrepair or have been converted to other uses.

Though only a few vintage sweet potato houses remain to dot the Delaware landscape, they still have stories to tell, and with heritage tourism in place, a brand new opportunity to experience them.

Article and photo by Michele Walfred