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Promoting the Past

Madison earns accolades
from national preservationists amid
dwindling attendance

Site leaders are mobilizing an effort
to try and attract more visitors

By Don Ward
Editor

MADISON, Ind. (November 2004) – The fruits of Madison’s four decade-long dedication to historic preservation were thrust into the spotlight in late September when two prestigious groups of preservationists toured the town as part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual conference in nearby Louisville.

November Issue Cover

November 2004
Madison Cover

The chance to show off Historic Madison Inc.’s properties, such as the Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum and the Francis Costigan House, plus the state-owned Lanier Mansion State Historic Site gave local heritage site representatives a reason to be proud. Even Madison Mayor Al Huntington was beaming as he greeted a bus load of 50 preservation enthusiasts from around the country on Friday, Oct. 1, prior to their tour of town.
Huntington also greeted a group of National Trust officers at City Hall on Sept. 27 prior to the opening of the Louisville conference. At that meeting, the National Conference of State Historic Preservation officers recognized Madison as Indiana’s first “Preserve America” community. John Fowler, executive director of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, announced the designation by the White House and cited Madison’s 113 blocks of downtown on the National Register of Historic Places, including two National Historic Landmarks, the Lanier Mansion and the Shrewsbury-Windle House.
Both tours, organized chiefly by HMI’s John Staicer and Kim Franklin Nyberg, brought national exposure to this town of only 13,000. Friday’s day-long tour was a sellout and culminated with a reception with HMI matriarch Ann Windle, 93, who greeted the visitors at her Shrewsbury-Windle House on First Street.
After a day of touring and lunch at Eckert, Alcorn, Goering & Sage law office, an award-winning adaptive re-use historic building, “those people loved Madison, and some of them had tears in their eyes when they boarded the bus to go back to Louisville,” said Nyberg.
What’s more, Madison gained national recognition on Thursday, Sept. 30, when HMI’s Saddletree Factory Museum was among 21 national award winners announced by National Trust officials at the Louisville Palace before a crowd of nearly 2,000.
Huntington and Staicer were among a group representing Madison in accepting the award, and a short video presentation explained the significance of the decade-long effort to preserve and open as a musuem the Saddletree Factory. On Friday, the museum was prominently featured in a Louisville Courier-Journal article as part of its weeklong coverage of the conference.
“This is a great honor because the National Trust is the premier historic preservation conference in the United States. And for them to come to Madison all day is very significant,” said Staicer, who last year took over for retiring John Galvin as HMI’s executive director after having spent nearly a decade working exclusively on the Saddletree project.
“Madison has become one of the great historic towns in the country and the National Trust recognizes that. “We’re just excited and delighted to be honored in this way.”
Staicer called the Saddletree Factory Museum award “a really big deal – a once-in-a-lifetime event. It’s like you’re at the Olympics and you’ve just won the gold medal.”
Disturbing trends in visitation
But amid all the hoopla and rejoicing was a somber message emanating from the conference workshops – that of dwindling attendance at the nation’s heritage tourism sites. And Madison’s historic properties are not exempt from this national trend.
In fact, walk-in attendance has been steadily declining for several years at some properties (see graph, page 18). Although Staicer reports an increase in overall visitation this year over last year at HMI historic properties, he says the number of walk-in visitors is down. The increase is due mainly to group and bus tours.

John Staicer, Kim Nyberg

Photo by Don Ward

Historic Madison Inc.’s John Staicer and Kim Franklin Nyberg read a Louisville Courier-Journal article about Madison’s participation in the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference.

Visitors at Madison’s top tourism attraction, the Lanier Mansion, steadily dropped from 29,326 in 1999 to a five-year low of only 12,367 last year. Visitation is down 25 percent so far in 2004 from the previous year, figure show. In early September, the mansion began charging an admission for guided tours of the house. No self-guided tours are available. Admission to the 10-acre grounds and gardens is still free. To tour the mansion, the charge is $4 adults, $3.50 seniors and $2 for children ages 6-16.
In November, state officials are expected to discuss changes to the various other user fees in place at the state’s historic sites, including those fees for weddings and other specialevents booked at Lanier Mansion, said curator Link Ludington.
“The user fees we have now have been in place for a long time,” he said. “The fees may be adjusted for each site, depending on demand for usage and location.”
The Jefferson County Historical Society Museum reports a 20 percent decline through the end of September compared to the same period last year. And that was even despite a bump in last year’s attendance created by the Harlan Hubbard art exhibit, said executive director Joe Carr.
And while HMI reports a slight increase of 2 percent compared to this time last year, last year’s total of 6,710 walk-in visitors is dramatically below the 7,929 reported in 2000.
Well aware that heritage tourism comprises a large portion of the city’s attraction for visitors, representatives of local historic properties in October began meeting on a regular basis to formulate an action plan to try and stem the attendance slide.
Developing a plan of action
Specifically, this group, which calls itself the Madison Area Heritage Sites Roundtable, is working to revive the combination ticket system that was in place a few years ago that offered discounts on admission to the area’s historic sites. The ticket would include admission to HMI’s properties (the Judge Jeremiah Sullivan House, Dr. William Hutching’s Office, Francis Costigan House, and the Talbott-Hyatt Pioneer Garden), the Lanier Mansion, the Jefferson County Historical Society Heritage Museum, the Madison Railroad Depot, the Lanier-Schofield House and two new museums that have opened since the last time the tickets were used – the Gatehouse Mental Health Museum at the Madison State Hospital and Eleutherian College in Lancaster. After having gained the support of the Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau board members at its October meeting, the group hopes to have the ticket available for the 2005 tourist season, said Staicer.
“It’s an informal group; the properties just want to speak with a unified voice on this issue and see what we can do by working together,” said the historical society’s Carr. “I feel better about us working together than I have in many years. There’s a good spirit of cooperation among other properties.”

statistics graphic

Lanier Mansion curator Link Ludington said, “I see this group as an informal opportunity to get together on an occasional basis to establish some regular communication between the historic properties in town and to coordinate any activities we undertake with other groups, like the CVB or the chamber or whoever, so we are all operating on the same page.”
To help develop additional ideas, the group on Nov. 8 plans to meet with an Indianapolis-based heritage tourism consultant, Brenda Myers, vice president of marketing and public relations for the Indiana Historical Society. With 20 years of experience in cultural heritage tourism marketing, Myers said it can be useful for heritage site operators to hear a fresh perspective from someone on the outside.
“Heritage sites can often go through cycles, and I hope that we can get some creative thinking going when I meet with the people in Madison,” Myers said in a recent telephone interview.
A Tennessee native, Myers graduated from Indiana University then returned to work in newspapers before eventually moving into cultural tourism marketing. Prior to taking her current post at the Indiana Historical Society, she spent 13 years at Conner Prairie, a living history museum north of Indianapolis where she helped develop what she calls “aggressive programming” that led to increased attendance. “The marketing is only as good as the programming,” she said.
While in Madison, Myers plans to help local heritage site operators “do some self analysis and see what works and build on what works.” In doing so, she believes the site operators can develop some targeted programming, either individually or collectively.
She said sites must work within their limited budgets and that no matter how large the facility, “your resources are relative. We’re a large facility (at the Indiana History Museum) and we feel like we never have enough money.”
At the National Trust Conference in Louisville in late September, a panel of experts discussed the downward trend in heritage site visitation nationwide. They reported that only two “for-profit” historic properties reported an increase in attendance last year – Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, Tenn., and George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. Both sites rely on slick advertising campaigns to attract visitors.
That’s a luxury that few non-profit heritage sites can afford.

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