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Measuring the History Payback


The past packs economic impact, but not for its front line troups. Portsmouth's growing history tour industry is held together with chewing gum and string while the city benefits on the rising "green" cultural toruism industry.





SEE: The enormous list of local historic sites on

If history were oil, I have often said, Portsmouth would be Kuwait. It is our greatest cultural resource. Few cities in the nation, especially those with 20,000 residents, have more surviving historic buildings and sites open to the public. Take away the North Church, Strawbery Banke, Point of Graves, the Langdon, Moffatt-Ladd , John Paul Jones and other historic spots and Portsmouth would cease to be Portsmouth. Even residents who have never been inside a single historic museum can sense the early English village on which the city's narrow one-way streets are set.

Tourists feel it too. The more homogenized American towns become, the more special Portsmouth looks, and the closer are its links to the past. Portsmouth is the ideal "walking town" but visitors can also learn local history while traveling on narrated trolleys, cruise boats, buses and limousines.

But history is not oil, far from it. Despite the increasing number of high-quality guided tours around the Port City, nobody is getting rich in the "history biz" locally. In fact, few guides earn anything approaching a living wage and many historic homes spend more annually on staff than they earn from visitors.

Yet we are making slow progress in the evolution of Portsmouth has an historic destination point. While the number of cultural tourism visitors is not climbing, neither has the number of tours fallen off significantly in recent years. At the same time more and more historic groups like the Gundalow Company and the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion are adding professional executive directors.

In an unprecedented move, three historic house groups have combined forces to hire a central executive director. Elizabeth Farish actually oversees four house museums – Warner, Tobias Lear, John Paul Jones and Wentworth-Gardner – filling in as a tour guide when needed.

"We’re all after the same thing," Farish said this week. "The resources the houses have, when combined, make it easier for them to get on the radar screen of people who enjoy these kinds of places."

But with synergy comes adaptation. Currently one of the organizations pays its guides, another does not, and a third is half-paid staff, half volunteer. Farish is smack in the middle.

Originally all Portsmouth tour guides were volunteers. Most historic museums here, as elsewhere, were preserved by women, often wealthy widows creating shrines to famous men, inevitably white, usually politicians or military leaders. Lately, as nonprofit museums have become "professionalized" the guides are sometimes getting paid.

A trained guide working for the Portsmouth Harbour Trail, run by the local chamber of commerce, can make up to $15 (before taxes and without benefits) for a brisk hour-long walking tour. Two tours are offered daily, one in the morning, one in the evening. A Strawbery Banke guide makes more than minimum wage, but less that $10 an hour.

"It's around Wal-Mart rate," Strawbery Banke Advertising and Publications manager Heather Harris told me. "These people really have to love history."

The museum maintains about 100 volunteers and staff with about 30 year-round employees. There are 45 old houses to maintain on a budget last year of $2.3 million. Clearly the 50,000 visitors did not cover operating costs, and the museum is forever looking for new ways to attract people.

"I do think we are facing an uphill battle of people who say -- I love Strawbery Banke -- but do not donate to the museum," Harris says.

Visitors, more and more, want to see history that comes to life, she says, and that has relevance to their lives, laced with action. At a recent conference, history professionals joked that the ideal museum tour for the modern audience might be called "NASCAR, Viagra and Eating."

Indeed, it seems to be the special events that visitors favor. Strawberry Banke's annual winter Candlelight Stroll and Halloween party have become the biggest days of the year. Monthly tours of the 1877 Portsmouth Harbor Light in New Castle, never opened to the public in the past, have generated over $500 on a good day with a $3 admission.

Roxie Zwicker, founder of New England Curiosities, organized a night time lighthouse lecture in New Castle Commons that was sold out with over $750 in ticket sales. She says, by offering tours in Portland, Maine, Cape Cod and here, she has managed to begin building a tour service by staying diverse and combining history with strange and compelling local legends.

"Ninety-five percent of those in our Portsmouth tours come from out of town," she says. 'We rely on people from Portsmouth to tell their friends about us. You can't just rely on people walking down the street."

Carole Renselaer, another independent, says the fall foliage season is still the biggest draw. Her company of one, Heritage of the Seacoast, LLC, focuses largely on "step on" tours. Bus companies bring the tourists to town and she steps on to provide a one, two or three-hour tour.

"Lots of the people didn't know Portsmouth even existed," Renselaer says. "By the time the tour is finished they are absolutely fascinated by this city."

The guide is paid an hourly rate by the tour company. Whenever possible, Renselaer likes to get tourists off the bus into one of the history museums.

But the real financial impact filters back into the community -- into parking fees, shops, eateries, hotels and, for those who choose to move here, to real estate agents, condo developers, service professionals, grocery stores, car dealers and malls.

When I ask new residents, mostly financially-secure "empty nesters", why they have settled here, inevitably they say they were first drawn to the historic houses and the cultural events. History and the arts are often the primary "economic drivers" that define the region. These cultural forces compel the flow of money, but those involved in promoting and preserving that history are rarely recipients of those funds.

Talking further with Portsmouth residents, long and short-term, I'm often surprised how many of them think that the city and their taxes help support the many historic house museums. Not so. Nor, in most cases, do the houses receive state or federal money. Except for their tax-free nonprofit status, and the occasional grant, most of these buildings scrape by on volunteers and the funds they can raise from visitors, private donations and corporate sponsors.

Whether Portsmouth knows it or not, this Old Town by the Sea is being increasingly identified by its historic sites and tours. Visitors often remark on how lucky we are to live among the ancient cemeteries, fine architecture and historic sites. Interestingly, much of the funding that keeps our heritage standing comes from tourists and newly-arrived residents. And the people who tell the old stories and keep the past alive would be better off working at Wal-Mart.


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Wednesday, January 24, 2018 
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