Change, even when it's for the better, often is difficult. The changes that are occurring in the organization and leadership of Douglas County's historical tourism efforts are bound to cause some hard feelings, but they have a strong chance, in the long run, of making this area's wonderful history more accessible to visitors and a bigger draw for tourism.
At the center of the changes is the new Destination Management Inc., under the leadership of Judy Billings, the long-time director of the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau. The first shifts took place several months ago when DMI formed and took over the operation of the visitor's bureau from the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. At the same time, DMI formalized its leadership role with the Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area.
The goal of this transition was to put Lawrence and Billings at the center of developing the new heritage area and to coordinate that project with other historical tourism efforts in the county. Those pushing the reorganization said putting the heritage area management under the local chamber of commerce wouldn't be acceptable to others involved in the project, which includes 41 counties in Kansas and Missouri.
DMI also has given the Douglas County Commission the opportunity to increase the coordination of funding and activities among a number of local historical societies in the county. The first step in that direction was for the county to give DMI $18,000 to work with the Watkins Community Museum of History and the Douglas County Historical Society, which oversees it, on management issues. County commissioners had been concerned for some time with the operation and fundraising efforts of the museum, which receives about $135,000 in county funds annually. It is unfortunate that one of the first moves determined to be necessary in that process was the dismissal of the museum's director, Rebecca Phipps.
This likely is not the only heartburn that will be caused by this leadership transition. County commissioners also are working on an agreement that would transfer all the funding normally allocated to historical societies in the county to DMI. That would include funding for historical societies focused on Lecompton, Clinton Lake, Black Jack Park and other sites.
First, let it be said that Douglas County residents owe a huge debt of gratitude to the mostly volunteer efforts of all of the small historical societies in the county. They have done a monumental job of preserving and protecting our significant local heritage.
However, to make sure both that heritage and the work needed to preserve it is passed to future generations, it makes sense to establish a more formal management structure that can coordinate local efforts with one another and within the new heritage area.
It has long been a goal of this area to better share and capitalize on its rich pre-Civil War history. Although parts of this transition to Destination Management leadership will be uncomfortable for some, this effort has great potential for long-term benefits.