By: Samuel W. Shogren, MPA
The Unrealized Potential of Sturgeon Bay’s West Side:
How Heritage and Culture Can Build Economic Opportunity and Transform a Community
Samuel W Shogren, MPA
It’s time for a new conversation regarding the Westside.
A conversation that, for planning purposes, ignores property boundaries for a moment, to see a larger historic maritime cultural landscape that can create a larger economic opportunity for the community. A conversation that sees the whole of a neighborhood as an asset. A conversation that utilize the tools provided by heritage and environmental tourism as an engine of economic growth and development.
Behind the recent legal storm clouding the future of the Westside and the development of some of the last publicly held land on Sturgeon Bay lies a “Perfect Storm” of unrecognized shared interests, motivations, and development plans. The building blocks are present to create a uniquely local tourism attraction that celebrates the heritage of Sturgeon Bay if all the players can be brought to the table. But it will take private, public, and philanthropic dollars to pull it off.
By combining the parallel efforts of private developers and the community campaigns to expand the Maritime Museum, the County Museum, and the Save the Elevator campaign together with the recently announced NOAA National Maritime Sanctuary for Lake Michigan (and NOAA’s need for an operations base) the funding and synergies are present to develop a cultural attraction that will drive tourism to the Westside and Downtown Sturgeon Bay and expand the resident workforce in the community.
To sell heads in bed, those heads need something to do during the other 16 hours of the day.
Drawing on my thirty years of experience in leading museums and working for some the largest history museums in the United States and my work with the Oregon Cultural Trust, the Working Waterfront Museum, the Washington County Museum, the Maine Governor’s Office, the Maine State Tourism Commission, and cross boarder collaborations with the Provence of New Brunswick let me share some observations and lessons that lead to success in creating maritime and heritage attractions.
Lesson 1. Co-location of Cultural Attractions Builds Success – Separation Spells Struggle
When I relocated the Washington County Museum outside of Portland, Oregon from a rural location at a community college to the main street of the county seat close of two theater companies, art galleries, restaurants and shopping museum visitation increased 10-fold despite the greatest recession since the 1930’s. And a local developer built and opened a micro-brewery a few blocks down main street after the new museum opened. Just like restaurants and gas stations do better when clustered together -so to do museums and other cultural attractions.
In Sturgeon Bay the maritime museum and the county history museum need to join forces to build a co-located museum attractions that build a broader “experience” for tourists visiting Sturgeon Bay. Urban and city environments need a density of experiences in terms of attractions, restaurants and lodgings that encourage walking and socialization. Open space, in the context of Sturgeon Bay’s West Side, forces
attractions and businesses apart decreasing the economic vitality of the effort and less return on investment for both private and public dollars.
Lesson 2. Science Sells – And Fish Do Too
More people visit science museums than art or history museums. Aquariums and marine science centers are also strong magnets attracting tourism dollars that spill over into the neighborhood economy. Even small marine science centers attract school groups and families – all year long. Here in Oregon, Oregon State University operates the H. Marine Science Center with hands on experiments and touch tanks and small aquariums for families and students to visit all year round. And it is located very near the Oregon Aquarium.
The last I heard from members in the local community, universities on the Great Lakes were looking for a new location for a marine science center. And NOAA needs an operations center for the National Marine Sanctuary and NOAA’s oceanographic research vessels need a home base; and the families that operate those vessels and conduct the research need a place to live.
Imagine a complex that includes a maritime museum, a history museum, and a marine science center all located within the same economic redevelopment plan. Imagine too the business opportunities of commercial and retail space abutting those attractions and the economic synergizes that can develop for the West Side.
Lesson 3. The most successful heritage and scientific attractions build out – not up, and they incorporate the historic landscape and buildings.
When the aquarium was built in Monterey CA. they did so by repurposing an old sardine cannery. When they expanded (twice) with modern construction they went horizontal and took their design cues from the other buildings of Cannery Row. The most successful maritime museums who are members of the Council of American Maritime Museums all created “campuses” or clusters of buildings. In my time as Curator of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Maine I developed exhibits for and “curated” a collection twelve historic and modern structures with over 22,000 sq. ft. of displays. Maine Maritime Museum preserves the buildings and heritage of the Percy and Small shipyard and covers 20 acres. Mystic Seaport Museum, the nation’s largest maritime museum covers 19 acres and exceeds 50 buildings and structures.
Clusters of buildings and structures that tell a story of the community and its maritime activities creates a sense of “value for the dollar” in the mind of a museum visitor. By moving visitors through a landscape of smaller structures a sense of place is created and the co-location of different attractions is possible. Incorporating elements and styles of heritage architecture create a sense of place in a changing world.
Communities across the country are discovering that preserving, and including elements of what was present before builds a richness of experience. A recent tour of the redevelopment efforts in Wilmington, Delaware and proposed plans for Portland, Oregon’s South Waterfront both include the preservation of gantry cranes and other elements of a maritime past. Preservation of the Granary and its incorporation into a heritage attraction is necessary to provide authenticity and an icon symbolizing Sturgeon Bay’s disappearing working waterfront.
Lesson 4: Promote and Financially Support the Creation of Cultural Infrastructure
In the mid-1990s as a member of the Maine Governor’s Taskforce for Heritage and Cultural Tourism we reinvented the state’s approach to selling “heads in bed” by focusing on building collaborations among heritage, cultural and tourism operators that celebrated the place and the idea of Maine. We promoted the rich history and culture – including lobsters and lighthouses – but all writers, artists and maritime commerce. We focused on improving the cultural infrastructure of the state to provide attractions and events that drew “folks from away” to spend time in the community and in doing so we increased hotel occupancy rates. Our efforts, along with similar efforts in Oregon, were recognized by the Pew Charitable Trusts as national models for combining economic development with culture and heritage.
Heritage and cultural tourists stay longer and spend more money than any other form of tourism. People want to encounter a real past with real objects and real heritage buildings. Look at the numbers generated by American’s visiting England and Europe for vacation for a “cultural experience.”
Supporting a healthy Main Street program, building collaboration, and partnerships between the public and private sectors, between the heritage and environmental communities, between industry and government, between philanthropy and private investment is the only comprehensive, between public and private land owners is the only real solution and way forward for Sturgeon Bay and the rebirth of the Westside.
My recommendation to my hometown is to pull back and develop a new comprehensive development plan that builds on the lessons learned above and the underlying maritime cultural landscape below. A plan that celebrates past, present and future. A plan that seeks to draw people into the community and make them stay because there is so much to do here with new attractions that it fill their day. An active vibrant waterfront built on a new cultural district located on the Westside and within a short “ferry ride” to downtown.
Samuel Shogren, is a 1978 graduate of Sturgeon Bay High School and former sailing instructor at the Sturgeon Bay Yacht Club. A trained Historical Archaeologist, Sam is a former member of the Maine Governor’s Taskforce for Heritage & Cultural Tourism, and the former Executive Director of the Working Waterfront Museum, the Aspen Historical Society, and the Washington County Museum. He is the previously served as Curator of the AAM accredited Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine and served on the Creative Advocacy Network for the Mayor’s Office, City of Portland, Oregon. Sam authored the County Cultural Plan for Washington County, Oregon.
Sam has spoken before to the North Dakota Governor’s Conference on Tourism, the American Association of Museums, the New England Association of Museum, Maine Archives and Museums, and the Oregon Heritage Conference on tourism, strategic planning, and historic preservation. He has developed over 60 museum exhibitions and written for Maine Boats and Harbor’s magazine. WoodenBoat Magazine and the Portland Merchant’s Exchange have published his photography. Sam is currently a consultant in private practice in Portland, Oregon, and a member of the Lower Columbia River Harbor Safety Committee.