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Historic sites drive tourism and the economy

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Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites has been working with the city of Bethlehem for more than 50 years, creating heritage tourism opportunities and an urban center that boasts some of the finest 18th century architecture in the nation. Historic museums and sites, in turn, improve both property values and quality of life, while tourism itself is a big driver of commerce.

It all underscores a significant designation here in the heart of the Lehigh Valley: Historic Moravian Bethlehem – with its superlative original 18th century Colonial Germanic-style buildings – has been recognized by the National Park Service as a National Historic Landmark District, one of only eight in Pennsylvania and 200 in the United States. It brings recognition of these treasures on a national scale and is an important component of the heritage tourism offerings in our region.

Today, as our community has evolved, Bethlehem sits in the epicenter of the Lehigh Valley, a day's drive to a third of all U.S. and half of all Canadian consumers, 60 miles north of Philadelphia, 110 miles west of New York City, 156 miles north of Baltimore. And the Valley is the third largest metropolitan area in Pennsylvania.

Let's take a step back to a time when George Washington was just 10 and 35 years before the Declaration of Independence. Bethlehem, founded in 1741 by a small group of settlers, members of the Moravian Church, was on the cutting edge with a high level of industry, health care and culture.

At the confluence of the Monocacy Creek and Lehigh River, the Moravians developed the largest concentration of pre-Industrial Revolution crafts, trades and industries, believed to be one of America's earliest industrial parks and a foreshadowing of the great industrial heritage of the Lehigh Valley.

In 1762, the Moravians built the first pumped municipal water system in the American colonies, a National Historic Landmark, American Water Landmark and American Civil Engineering Landmark.

The 1741 Gemeinhaus, also a National Historic Landmark and now home to the Moravian Museum, is believed to be the largest 18th century log structure in continuous use in the U.S. Moravian Bethlehem established the oldest school to educate women, the first school to teach Native American languages, one of the earliest orchestras in America and one of the oldest apothecaries.

We at Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites care for 20 historic buildings, including the 1762 Waterworks and 1741 Gemeinhaus and many of the structures in the National Historic Landmark District.

These buildings, artifacts and stories are very important to the history of our commonwealth and to our nation. We are a must-see destination, according to Patricia Schultz in her New York Times best seller “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”

Visitors to historic sites and cultural attractions stay 53 percent longer and spend 36 percent more money than other kinds of tourists.

We are working with the Innovation and Leadership Residency program at Lehigh University under the direction of Robert Gustafson, leadership fellow at the Center for Enterprise Innovation, to determine best practices in attracting a broad audience to visit, explore and experience our National Historic Landmark District – and to better understand the potential economic impact of a designated landmark district on a community.

According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services most recent survey, 55.5 percent of museums across the U.S. are related to history, heritage and/or preservation. This demonstrates a strong interest by the population in historic preservation and in understanding our nation's heritage, and is an important aspect of the tourism industry.

We invite and encourage the business community to use these heritage tourism resources to further the economic development of the Lehigh Valley.

Many residents of and visitors to the Lehigh Valley are drawn to the beautiful historic streets and cityscape of this area.

We offer first-class visitor experiences and in 2013 had visitors from 48 states and 27 foreign nations with an annual attendance of about 50,000 people. Additionally, millions of people each year walk our grounds and enjoy the ambiance which we provide at no cost to them.

By preserving these historic buildings and this wonderful setting, we contribute to the economic vitality of the Lehigh Valley as an important tourism attraction.

We also provide the backdrop for many Bethlehem festivals and events. And visitors spend tens of thousands of dollars shopping in our downtowns, eating in local restaurants and staying in local hotels.

Historic districts have a positive influence on real estate values, producing higher housing values and faster appreciation and resulting in increased tax revenues, according to a study by Todd A. Watkins, professor of economics and executive director of the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship at Lehigh.

Businesses looking to relocate to the Lehigh Valley are influenced by quality of life issues, including good housing stock, good schools and access to vibrant cultural resources.

Our message to our corporate partners and corporate citizens – we are an important footprint in the heart of the Lehigh Valley and, working together, we can exemplify a strong community dedicated to its past and engaged in impacting the future.

Our impact will be felt for generations to come, and business leaders in the community can be proud to support our mission.

LoriAnn Wukitsch is vice president and managing director of Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites (www.historicbethlehem.org). She can be reached at lwukitsch@historicbethlehem.org. Charlene Donchez Mowers is president of Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites. She can be reached at cdm@lwukitsch@historicbethlehem.org.

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