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Portsmouth Needs a Visitor Center

Portsmouth Ponders


Portsmouth stands on the brink of becoming one of the best "heritage centers" in America -- or so say we. The city can boast more historic houses open to the public than any New England town its size. But something is missing. We think we know what it is. What do you think?



To be an important city, to paraphrase Hamlet, or not to be -- that is the question Portsmouth faces. For over a century now the Old Port has pondered what was already clear to Victorian tourists. New Hampshire's only major seaport is both a great place to visit, and a great place to rediscover American history. Yet on we sit, like the Prince of Denmark, pondering the past and forsaking our destiny.

Forgive me if I repeat myself. I've been rattling this saber in lecture halls and newspapers, in committee meetings and party conversations for over two decades. This region is on the brink, I believe, of becoming a major cultural center. Finally, like Hamlet, our big chance is at hand. We can act, or we can just dream on.

Portsmouth is a "history city". With its sister towns, Portsmouth defines 400 years of life in New England. From the arrival of European fisherman to the Isles of Shoals in 1600 to nuclear subs at the naval shipyard -- the story is here. We have more authentic historic houses open to the public, as far as I can tell, than any city this size in the nation.

And size does matter. When it comes to cultural tourism, visitors prefer small, scenic "walkable" towns with a range of unique dining, shopping and lodging options. They want places that are both new and old, authentic yet convenient, out-of-the-way, yet accessible. Americans are hungry to learn about their roots in the past, but they insist on being entertained as they are educated. Being the smallest coastline in the United States is an advantage if your goal is to attract short-stay visitors who learn, spend and run. Being wedged between two popular vacation states, both with sandy beaches, along a fast-flowing river on a gorgeous tidal bay are also advantages. We are being given the opportunity to have our cake and eat it too. We can preserve our heritage and fragile ecosystem by carefully packaging them for visitors who will pick up the tab. The Seacoast can keep its precious quality of life -- but only if we share.

For those who still fear tourism -- get over it. They are already here and their dollars are the second most important source of our state economy. The question is not whether the tourists will come, but whether we will use their money wisely or squander it creating fake tacky attractions that make us look like every other amusement park in the world. What we have to sell is our diverse cultural heritage -- naval, architectural, ethnic, literary, maritime, artisan, military, colonial, Revolutionary, supernatural, social, religious, artistic -- you name it, we got it.

What we don't have, yet, is our act together. The city, local businesses, seacoast residents and the history community are not yet working in harmony. Everyone is playing his or her part well, yet it still sounds like an orchestra tuning up rather than a symphony. The conductor, the person holding the baton who turns noise into music, has not yet arrived -- but the audience has. Hamlet, to round out the original metaphor, has stage fright.

I humbly suggest that we get it together and do the following -- define, simplify, centralize, rally, promote and welcome.

Define the Message

No single event dominates four centuries of local history. That's both a good and a bad thing. We can't pretend to offer the Freedom Trail like Boston or Philly's Liberty Bell. We're not identified with witches like Salem or fishing like Gloucester or the Civil War like Gettysburg. So we must "brand" our own unique identity. This does not mean coming up with corny pandering slogans, but rather, crafting an authentic message that both defines our region and beckons to visitors. Ultimately the message needs to come down to one word. I think that word is "history".

Simplify the Story

The whole Piscataqua story can be told in one powerful 20-minute video presentation. It won't be cheap, but with dramatic writing, strong images and computer animation it can be done. The mill city of Lowell does this very well with an introductory slide show that most visitors to the national park there see. The show creates the context in which everything else in town makes sense.

Our show will explain how we started as a fishing village on an island, displaced the native Piscataqua Indians and evolved into a colonial world trade center. It will show why New Hampshire was a royal province very different from Massachusetts and Maine. We see the city move up from the river to Market Square, then burn and rebuild and burn again. We observe the Revolution, the birth of the navy yard, the desperate economic times, the age of the clipper ships, the cultural revival. Suddenly things begin to make sense. The lights come up. Now the visitors are ready to explore.

Centralize the Information

People need a central place to see this introductory film. Every tour needs a starting point. We are not a major cultural destination, because Portsmouth has no visitor’s center. It has to be open almost all the time and staffed with friendly people who know this region inside and out. It has to be downtown. It has to be big enough to accommodate busloads of visitors.

I’m just brainstorming here, but the current Portsmouth Library building, Salvation Army building, the former Baptist Church in Haymarket Square and the Old North Church downtown all seem ideal. You need a presentation area, room for milling around, space for lots of maps and brochures, bathrooms, some exhibit space, some offices and a souvenir shop. Once visitors understand what Portsmouth is all about and get oriented – visitor guides help them decide where to go, eat, picnic, hike, sleep. The money pours into the community, and the community needs to give a portion back to its historic sites.

Rally the Troops

It's safe to say that, so far, the business community does not fully realize how dependant it is on the historic sites nearby. Old buildings attract people even if those people never take an historic house tour. Take away the Langdon and Moffatt Ladd houses, remove the salt and junk piles, bulldoze Strawbery Banke and Portsmouth dies. All the heritage groups need to play this tune. While each historic site is valuable, together they are essential. The city council and the chamber of commerce need to hum the same melody. Church groups and social clubs, teachers, corporations, real estate agents and nonprofit arts groups should all be singing from the same sheet music.

Promote a Yearly Theme

Nothing draws visitors or unites local energy like a powerful message. It worked in the 1800s with the Return of the Sons and Daughters celebrations. In 1923 thousands gathered for a rollicking 300th celebration of the founding of the city. We did it in 1823, in 1973, in 1998. This year the whole world is watching the centennial of the Treaty of Portsmouth with a well-organized schedule of exhibits and events.

So why not focus each year on a powerful topic? Creative members of the arts community can flesh out the story with plays, exhibits, artwork, events and lectures. Writers can spread the word. 2014, for example, marks the 400th anniversary of John Smith's "discovery" of New England. Did you know that, after Jamestown, he wanted to found a colony here? The theme for 2013 could be "Portsmouth Ablaze", the bicentennial of the last downtown fire. In 2008 Strawbery Banke will be 50 years old. The New Hampshire Gazette, America's Oldest Newspaper will be 250 in 2006. We could dedicate a year to Black History, our maritime heritage, the naval shipyard, famous local writers, great architecture, Native American culture. Well, you get the point.

Welcome the World

The first thing a tourist notices about Portsmouth is the lack of public restrooms. Parking is still troublesome. You can't buy a guidebook to the city anywhere because none exists. There is only one place downtown to buy local books. Many of the historic markers are faded or gone. The one-way roads can be confusing. Try giving directions from downtown to the malls. The nearest bus station is at Pease Tradeport and the nearest train stations are in Exeter and Durham. The free maps you find in restaurants only make things more confusing.

But we can fix all that. We can get our act together. Soon every year will offer a new celebration of history, a new reason to visit Portsmouth, and a new way to discover America. To do less, as Hamlet found out, would be a tragedy.

Copyright © 2005 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

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