Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Tourism & Hospitality and Visitor Spending

States stake their tourism claims to Lincoln

August 27, 2007

With the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth approaching, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky all are fighting for a share of the bicentennial limelight.

Each has a valid claim to the 16th president: Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Ky., on April 12, 1809, moved to a southern Indiana farm with his family at age 7, then moved to Illinois at 21.

Now the states are looking for ways to trumpet their Lincoln ties.

This spring, Kentucky put up "Birthplace of Lincoln" road signs. Indiana followed suit in June with its own "Lincoln's Boyhood Home" markers.

Kentucky will roll out a specialty license plate with its catch phrase in December, and Indiana will be hot on its tail again, with a commemorative license plate debuting in early 2008.

And Illinois? Well, it already has "Land of Lincoln" on its license plates and signs. What's at stake, experts said, isn't just pride of ownership over Lincoln's life, but also millions of tourism dollars. "Heritage travelers are big spenders," said Amy Webb of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "This is a high-value market."

Indiana's mission is to let people know about Lincoln's 14 years in the state.

"We have to put Indiana on more of an even keel with Illinois and Kentucky," said Indiana Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission Chairwoman Connie Nass. Gov. Mitch Daniels called the former state auditor out of retirement in 2006 to head up the commission. "We have not used the formative years that Lincoln spent in Indiana."

Webb said anniversaries generally trigger a jump in attendance at related historic sites, but it's a small window of opportunity.

"It's generally a spike, not a sustained surge," she said.

So it's no wonder Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky all are vying for a slice of the historic-tourism pie.

Tourists spent an estimated $8.5 billion while visiting 27 nationally designated heritage areas in 2005, according to a study by the Alliance for National Heritage Areas. That number includes lodging, food and other indirect spending.

In Indiana, the biggest attractions are a memorial at the site of the Lincoln family's Spencer County farm and the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, established by the founder of the Lincoln National Life Insurance Co. The museum boasts the world's largest private collection of Lincoln-related materials.

A multiyear celebration

All three Lincoln-loving states have formed commissions to help plan events that will run through 2009. There's also a federal commission coordinating five national "signature events."

Kentucky appears to be out in front with the planning, having formed its commission in 2004; it has set aside $4 million in funding. Kentucky will start the national celebration with a black-tie gala in Louisville Feb. 11, and a kickoff next day in Hodgenville, about 50 miles south. It's rumored that President George W. Bush will attend.

"Kentucky is Lincoln's birthplace, so it makes sense it would start here," said Lisa Cleveland, marketing director for the state's Lincoln bicentennial efforts.

In addition to the national affair, a slew of events is planned throughout the state, from plays to commemorative symphonies and new statues to a new exhibit in the state's touring historymobile.

"Most Kentuckians know [Lincoln] was born here, but I'm not sure it's as well known on the national scale," Cleveland said. "The commission's goal is to get that message out."

Indiana's Lincoln commission started its work in earnest last year and has $1.48 million in state funding, most of which will go out in grants to help local sites prep for celebrations.

Indiana also has landed a signature national event--a Mother's Day celebration at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, run by the National Park Service on the site of the Spencer County farm where Lincoln lived from 1816 to 1830.

The May 11 celebration will honor Lincoln's mother, whose grave is in the memorial. Invitees include current and former first ladies Laura and Barbara Bush, and television personality Jane Pauley has been asked to emcee the event. About 4,000 Boy Scouts also are expected in the crowd, since they'll be attending a jamboree centered on Lincoln.

Indiana's commission also made headway in securing one of only five stops to be made by a national traveling Lincoln exhibit that's supposed to be assembled by the U.S. Library of Congress. It is slated to include personal memorabilia such as the contents of Lincoln's pockets on the night he was shot.

National planners said they'd bring the roughly 12,000-square-foot exhibit to the Indiana State Museum in 2009, Nass said. But with the federal budget logjammed, its funding is uncertain and the exhibit might not happen.

"They're not moving on it," she said, but a local effort may materialize if the federal exhibit doesn't come through.

Indianapolis also will host an August event commemorating the stop Lincoln made downtown on Feb. 11, 1861, on his way to assume the presidency. A re-enactment of his speech will kick off a conference with national Lincoln experts.

Nass said the group also is trying to find a sponsor to bankroll a project that would send Lincoln pennies and educational packets to all Hoosiers born on his birthday for the last five years. And the state is close to signing a contract with someone at the Indiana University School of Music for a commemorative composition.

Although Illinois staked its claim to Lincoln long ago, its commission is just starting to plan events.

A house divided cannot stand

While the states might be rivals when it comes to Lincoln, they're also working together. A tri-state commission is meeting quarterly and soon will have a Web site up that outlines trip itineraries hitting the high points in all three states.

That's a smart move, according to Webb, the heritage tourism expert. She said tourists today don't really want the same feel exhibits had 50 to 100 years ago--where Lincoln was put on a pedestal. Instead, they want to know "what really shaped Lincoln as a person."

Take, for example, the favorite anecdote park guide Samantha Escobar likes to tell tourists stopping by the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial: Lincoln didn't grow his signature beard until he was on the presidential campaign trail, after an 11-year-old girl wrote to say his face was rather ugly and growing some facial hair might swing more ladies to favor him. Then, Escobar said, they would pressure their husbands to vote for him.

That's the kind of fun, personal information today's travelers want, Webb said, and if that story crosses state lines, the tourists will follow.

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