December 4, 2021

Heritage status sought for Finger Lakes region

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Traffic is shown on Main Street in downtown Homer in this 2019 Cortland Standard file photo.

Action from the U.S. Senate could lead to the establishment of a National Heritage Area in the Finger Lakes region, which would in turn open the region for federal funding. “I’m thrilled about the fact that this is moving forward,” said Meghan Lawton, executive director of the Cortland County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Last week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced legislation to take the first step toward designating the Finger Lakes Region as a National Heritage Area had passed the Senate as a provision in the Natural Resources Management Act.

The legislation authorizes the National Park Service to conduct a feasibility study in 14 Finger Lakes counties — Cayuga, Chemung, Cortland, Livingston, Monroe, Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Tioga, Tompkins, Wayne and Yates counties.

The study is the first step in determining whether a region has the resources and local capacity necessary to be designated as a National Heritage Area, which would open the region to nationwide promotion, more federal funding and expanded tourism.

Tourism in the region’s 14 counties generates more than $3 billion in business and employs 58,242 people, according to 2017 data from the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance. The region is also home to more than 400 registered historic sites and landmarks; 135 museums; 80 art galleries; 14 professional theater companies; 100 wineries; 300 bed and breakfast facilities; and 650 miles of shoreline.

“I’m very excited that my legislation to begin the process of designating the Finger Lakes Region as a National Heritage Area has passed the Senate,” Gillibrand said in a release.

A National Heritage Area designation would help give the Finger Lakes Region the ability to leverage funds and secure long-term, sustainable support for heritage conservation and economic development, Gillibrand said. By incorporating community input, National Heritage Areas turn every $1 of federal investment into $5.50 for jobs and government revenue that helps boost local tourism all while protecting the region’s natural, historic and cultural resources, according to the National Parks Service.

“This would be a good opportunity for the region as a whole and for the counties to tie into the Finger Lakes brand,” Lawton said.

While not knowing much about the legislation, Amanda Barber, manager of the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District, said it would be a good thing, but warrants a deeper look.

“It’s exciting to be given federal recognition for the resources we have here,” she said. However, communities would need a management plan that could dictate how private property owners can use their land.

One positive effect would be the opportunity for other funding mechanisms being brought into the community, Barber said.

“The Finger Lakes region is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places in our state, and it is one of our country’s great historical and cultural treasures,” Gillibrand said. “A National Heritage Area designation would help further conserve and protect the region’s natural resources and attract even more people from all over the world to the Finger Lakes.”