Towards an Heritage Economy

Posted By on Aug 15, 2011


Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the notion of an Heritage Economy.

In Eastern Ontario there is this incredible wealth of knowledge covering trades like coopering, blacksmithing, spinning, quilting, and farming – to name but a few. Some have come to this knowledge through generations of such expertise, while others have learnt from training at Upper Canada Village or other heritage holdings.

I came across most of these craftspeople while coordinating the Spencerville Mill’s Heritage Fair.

What has struck me most about their existence and numbers is that very few are actually making a living through their trade. All are eager to keep their craft alive, but most have felt that other jobs (which are scarce in economically depressed Eastern Ontario) are more likely to sustain them.

Of course, most handcrafted products cost more than their modern counterparts available at Walmart and other box stores – this, however, doesn’t speak to quality. And most of the craftspeople lack websites or other basic marketing presences, rendering the local (and depressed) region their only market, if that at all.

After a year of living out here, I have also been impressed by the number of heritage holdings – and not just museums, but historic architecture in general. On their own the public holdings and museums struggle to stay open.

That’s just it.

Everyone of these craftspeople or heritage holdings seems to be operating on their own, with no grand strategy. Some might be better at finding funding or marketing, but on the whole, they’re all, at best, little stars shining in the darkness. But what if an overarching strategy were created that aimed to develop the region economically through our shared heritage?

Enter what I call an Heritage Economy, a concept that would draw from the trades, activities and sites of times past. An Heritage Economy looks to existing craftspeople and holdings as the basis for fostering tourism, industry and education.

Through supporting local, already operating craftspeople, a Heritage Economy can help a region act as a brain-trust for skills nearly lost as a result of global industrialisation, while connecting people to their shared past and offering independence in learning how to make functional things – like fabric, buckets or produce.

Museums and holdings, instead of being dead spaces, would take on the role of training centres. In partnership with local craftspeople, museums could offer workshops on these trades – not just demonstrations. Package vacations could be created for weekend retreats, where enthusiasts learn a new hobby, such as hat or butter making.

Much of the success of an Heritage Economy depends on systemic strategy. For example, a cooper alone will find it difficult to sell a $200 butter churn, but what if that butter churn were marketed in the context of a weekend retreat for learning how to make butter?

Urban markets might be targeted, with a campaign that touts the health benefits of such a hobby: the physicality of churning the butter is stress-relieving and great exercise, and think how unique it will be to offer your friends home made butter. Moreover, as people grow increasingly detached from the art of making things, there will be a renewed interest in how things are produced.

A place like the Spencerville Mill might make for the perfect venue, and accommodations might be offered by a nearby bed & breakfast. Engage a local restaurant or caterer to provide food – and this is but the tip of the economic iceberg.

Taking this further, training for the trades could help create a host of skilled craftspeople. Perhaps a private academy might offer onsite instruction and experience in heritage trades such as masonry, carpentry, or blacksmithing. (Indeed, Algonquin College is offering many of these programs, but not as part of a greater strategy.) And what if such a school pledged as its mandate to take profits and reinvest into local communities, through restoration of heritage holdings, as one local craftsman recently suggested to do?

To that end, municipal and county grant programs might be more focused on supporting an Heritage Economy initiative. Consider the impact of focusing store front renewal campaigns on heritage, restoring old buildings and renovating newer ones to better fit the historic landscape. Think what sort of impact that might have on a town such as Prescott.

Of course, achieving an Heritage Economy requires coordination – but that certainly need not be beyond reach or impossible. In fact, an Heritage Economy might begin with a simple group marketing initiative.

We have been developing one, Heritage Holidays, that aims to encourage tourism in Eastern Ontario – and might eventually help promote tradespeople and workshops as well as tourism.

It’s really more a matter establishing a common overarching goal, something around which we can rally and all work towards. Why not economic development through our heritage? Just think, in addition to creating jobs, we might also be fostering our own independence. After all, the more we can produce locally, the less dependent we are on outside goods – and the money needed to buy them.

3 Comments

  1. Brilliant – I love it! Need to keep these businesses alive and thriving. As a consumer, I’d love to be able to research and contact them more easily and know they are out there!

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    • Thanks, Colleen. It would really be great to create more jobs so people don’t have to commute too. 🙂

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  2. Will this rationale be accepted by our Economic Development staff in the Leeds-Grenville area, tho’? I’d like to employ it in developing Oxford Mills, especially the re-purposing of the old Oxford-on-Rideau Township Hall as a heritage focal point for Day-trippers.

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