WINTER HARBOR — The Sunrise County Economic Council has taken the lead on an initiative to establish the Downeast region as a National Heritage Area.
“We’re willing to take on the [leadership] role going forward,” said Charles J. Rudelitch, executive director, at the conclusion of an Oct. 9 Downeast National Heritage Area Summit held at Schoodic Institute. “The whole process is structured to create economic development.”
A National Heritage Area is a geographic region designated by Congress to preserve and promote the unique natural, historic and cultural assets of a region.
About 35 people gathered for the summit to learn more about National Heritage Areas and the process of establishing one. The general consensus after the four-hour meeting was to move forward with the process and to include eastern Hancock County along with all of Washington County in the proposed National Heritage Area.
Meeting participants said they did not want to include Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor because those areas already have well-established brands.
“How do we encourage people to leave the Bar Harbor region and move up the coast and experience some of the great things you can do up the coast?” said Peter Samuel, manager of the National Heritage Areas Program’s northeast region.
Heritage areas have less well-defined boundaries than national parks and are funded by a combination of both private and public money, he said. The federal government does not own or manage the land. The National Park Service serves in an advisory role to help further the region’s preservation and promotion goals. Currently, 55 different National Heritage Areas exist but none of them are located in Maine.
“Many people who live in a heritage area don’t know they live in a heritage area,” Samuel said. “It’s really about a living landscape. It’s really about a landscape and an environment that we know is going to change.”
In addition to working to preserve the history of a site, establishing a heritage area can also foster tourism. The process begins with a feasibility study to determine if the area in question has the proper attributes and whether the designation is the best way for the region to realize its economic goals. The feasibility study can be done at no cost by the National Park Service.
“The disadvantage of that is it can take a long time, probably a longer time than you would like to think it would,” Samuel said.
Interested residents and community organizations can do their own feasibility studies more quickly but they have to foot the bill. Rudelitch estimated the study would cost about $50,000 and that the Sunrise County Economic Council would seek a benefactor to fund the majority of the cost.
The National Park Service reviews completed studies and sends them to Congress, which could opt to write legislation to establish the heritage area.
“Becoming a National Heritage Area is generally a very political process,” Samuel said. “It can take a long time.”
Once Congress has established the heritage area, residents would have to complete a management plan describing how they plan to preserve and interpret the area’s resources. During that planning phase, the region would be eligible for about $150,000 in funding a year toward planning costs. If the management plan is approved by the secretary of the interior, the region would qualify for $350,000 a year. All funds would have to be matched. Matches could be made in volunteer hours or in-kind donations.
Participants at the Oct. 9 summit broke up into small groups to discuss the area’s assets and what should be included in a proposal. They were instructed to ask themselves what defines the area and its people.
The six groups came up with essentially the same concepts. Physically, the area is defined by beautiful scenery that includes the rugged rocky coastline, lakes and woods along with historic fisheries, blueberry harvests, wreath making, a strong arts community and Revolutionary War and Native American history.
As for the area’s people, summit participants noted the prevalence of small businesses and a culture that does not rely on corporations, as well as a deep connection to both the land and the water.