There is no Willa Cather National Heritage Area
In a public letter to Willa Cather Foundation executive director Ashley Olson on Wednesday, Governor Ricketts expressed his opposition to “the Willa Cather Foundation’s plans to seek a National Heritage Area designation for portions of South Central and Southwestern Nebraska.”
Recent headlines suggest clarification is needed. The Willa Cather Foundation is not seeking designation as a National Heritage Area. Rather, a bi-state group of volunteers in north-central Kansas and south-central Nebraska has been working to explore the merits of a National Heritage Area designation and plan for a feasibility study that would seek feedback from local stakeholders, landowners, and residents in the region. This group is called the Kansas-Nebraska Heritage Area Partnership (KNHAP).
KNHAP is a grassroots organization connecting communities and attractions between forty-nine north central Kansas and south central Nebraska counties while acting as a catalyst for economic development through cultural heritage tourism. Volunteers from rural areas in both states serve on the committee exploring potential feasibility of this project in the region. Olson is one of thirteen volunteer committee members of KNHAP.
Olson and the Willa Cather Foundation became intrigued with the idea of seeking a National Heritage Area designation after a group of University of Nebraska-Lincoln students completed a research project that sought to examine ways to increase economic development through a more regional approach to cultural heritage tourism. In January 2020, over thirty organizations in Nebraska and Kansas signed a letter of support for the initiative, including the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism; the Nebraska Tourism Commission; the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; the Kansas Trails Council; Humanities Kansas; Humanities Nebraska, the Nebraska Forest Service, and History Nebraska. The stated mission is simply “to connect communities and attractions, instill pride of place, and promote immersive experiences for residents and visitors”
“I joined the KNHAP meetings in 2018, although the idea has roots in Nebraska, this process has been a true collaborative effort. This is the only group that is working between both Nebraska and Kansas to be a catalyst for economic development through heritage tourism while engaging over forty organizations, agencies, and partners to date.” stated Luke Mahin, Republic County Kansas Economic Development Director and Co-chair of KNHAP.
In 1984, the first National Heritage Area, Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Area, was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. In his dedication speech, Reagan referred to National Heritage Areas as a marriage of heritage conservation, recreation, and economic development. Every administration since Reagan has had a hand in creating the 55 existing NHAs in the United States. Six NHAs were designated by President Trump in 2019.
In a statement, Olson affirmed that the Willa Cather Foundation remains focused solely on its mission to promote Willa Cather’s legacy through education, preservation, and the arts. As it relates to tourism, she noted, “We value the relationships we’ve built with community leaders in rural Nebraska and Kansas and we look forward to continued collaboration to promote this region and its cultural attractions to visitors.” She also emphasized the Foundation’s commitment to open dialogue with residents of Red Cloud, Webster County, and beyond. “Ultimately, we too are a local business and we want to help elevate the historic sites we have to encourage visitors to stay longer and spend more money, not just with us, but with our regional neighbors too.”