Published on August 26, 2015

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By VAL VAN METER

The Winchester Star

Re-enactors are shown during the 150th anniversary event of The Battle of Cedar Creek on Oct. 18 near Middletown. JEFFTAYLOR The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — An economic impact study released by the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission says the five-year commemoration brought more than $290 million and 3.7 million visitors to the state.

Conducted by Chmura Economics and Analytics, of Richmond, the study indicates that the programs marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, from 2011 through 2015, generated more than $8.4 million in state tax revenue and nearly $5 million in revenue at the local level.

The study estimates the total economic impact of the Civil War sesquicentennial program and events, combining the expenditures of commemorative committees and visitor spending, at $290.3 million.

Direct spending by visitors to the events in Virginia is estimated at $165.7 million, supporting 3,488 jobs.

Terry Heder of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, who coordinated the activities with committees in Winchester and Frederick and Clarke counties, said the cash value of the many Civil War events at the local level, which date to 2011, is hard to determine.

Amy Simmons, interim director of the Winchester-Frederick County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said people who come to the center are asked why they decided to visit the city.

“The Civil War is always one of the top five reasons,” she said, but there is no mechanism to track whether they came for a specific event, and many heritage tourism visitors (defined by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as “traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past”) never stop at the center.

However, most localities saw or tracked an increase in visitors during the sesquicentennial.

“We did see a terrific upsurge in attendance, especially in special events that targeted anniversaries,” Heder said. “We were very pleased.”

Most of the events promoted by the foundation were free, he added.

That covered events held from Winchester south to Highland County and Waynesboro.

Gary Crawford, president of the Kernstown Battlefield Association, said the five years of events have brought more visitors to the site of the first and second battles of Kernstown.

Some people had warned, he said, that after the sesquicentennial, “the bottom would drop out of the tourism market. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite.”

The Kernstown Battlefield Association — whose anniversary events were in 2012 and 2014 — has seen an increase in visitors of 40 percent or more this year over 2014, Crawford said, and it seems that many of those who come are more knowledgeable about the local battles.

Crawford believes that many people “hit the big places,” like Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Antietam, during the sesquicentennial, and now are looking closer at local history.

While some are “casual drop bys,” many have done some research and know that their ancestor fought or died at Kernstown.

“We’re getting stories all over the place,” he said.

Robert Stieg Jr., who chaired Clarke County’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, said the leadership of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation was especially helpful to the locality.

The marketing boost from the foundation, which has a website that is checked by people across the country and even overseas, was a great benefit, Stieg said.

That spread awareness of Clarke’s Civil War events much wider than the locality could have done on its own, he said.

At the commemoration of both the Battle of Cool Spring and the Battle of Berryville, “We did get visits from people from all over the nation,” he said, and even some foreign visitors.

There is, Stieg said, a lot of interest in the American Civil War among Europeans.

Kristen Laise, executive director of Belle Grove, in Middletown, a National Trust property that is part of the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, said she believes the publicity put out by the National Park Service (NPS) boosted visitor numbers during the sesquicentennial.

Of particular help, she said, was the signage placed by the NPS on Interstate 81 and other roads leading to the historic site.

The NPS also added staff and increased the number of programs that it offered — many in Belle Grove’s front yard, explaining its significance in the Battle of Cedar Creek, she added.

She hopes the interest sparked by the Civil War anniversary will carry over, bringing some of those visitors back again.

Belle Grove is also hoping for a boost in tourism from the National Park Service celebrating its 100th anniversary next year.

Laise hopes local residents will also follow the NPS theme for 2016, “Get out and find your park,” by visiting Cedar Creek and Belle Grove.

In Clarke County, Stieg said there are still three events scheduled this year as part of its commemoration of the Civil War.

On Sept. 12, during Clermont Farm Days, Civil War historian Joseph Whitehorn will discuss how local residents tried to rebuild their lives at the end of the war.

These include getting a postal service running, rebuilding banks and putting farms back in production.

On Sept. 18, a descendant of a local Civil War soldier will discuss the book he wrote about his family’s experiences in Clarke County and, since the commemoration opened with a concert, on Nov. 20, it will close with one at Grace Episcopal Church.

Building on the awareness the sesquicentennial promoted is a theme Heder is also pushing.

“We need to take advantage of the increased attention,” he said, by doing more programs and building more long-term audiences.

While the anniversaries of battles have dwindled away in 2015, bringing fewer visitors than in 2014, the numbers are still above those attracted to the Shenandoah Valley’s battlefields in 2009.

With good turnouts this year, Heder said, “we have every reason to be optimistic” about the continued interest that “heritage” tourists will have in the Shenandoah Valley.

 

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com