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Heritage preservation as economic development

Heritage preservation as economic development

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Like most Missourians I take personal pride in the University of Missouri even though, like many, I have been disappointed in some of the actions that have occurred there in recent years. But I have concern in my professional capacity regarding an unfortunate decision the university has made — to sell land for a real estate development in a place that development should not be. Unless St. Charles County denies a request to rezone this property, the proposed sale will prove detrimental and counterproductive to our county over the long haul.

I am the executive director of the Missouri Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit organization with offices in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield. The council offers a wide variety of humanities-based public programming and funding opportunities to the citizens of our state. Some of the work we are most proud of are our heritage programs, composed of a number of specific cultural heritage activities and projects highlighting and commemorating our state’s rich history and heritage.

During summer 2016, following much work by me and the council’s staff, the Missouri Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill designating 16 counties (including St. Charles) bordering the Missouri River as Missouri’s German Heritage Corridor. This corridor recognizes our state’s extensive German heritage and will bolster local economic development through heritage tourism. Visitors from around the world will come to our area to visit the German Heritage Corridor, the bucolic countryside and small towns along the Missouri River.

The proposed residential housing development project, which requires rezoning of the area in question from agricultural to residential, will adversely affect this newly created area.

The Missouri Humanities Council is currently completing a comprehensive interpretive plan for the corridor, which will bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to the region and St. Charles County. One project involves the abandoned community of Hamburg, just west of the proposed development. The proposed rezoning, and its potential adverse consequences, could undermine the implementation of a comprehensive interpretive plan that will most certainly produce dividends for our local economy.

People come to this area today for the same reason German settlers came here in the 1800s — because it looks much like Germany’s Rhineland. The proposed rezoning will badly compromise this beautifully conserved natural landscape, and do harm to our tourism future.

While the entirety of St. Charles County is included in the German Heritage Corridor, its main artery is Highway 94. The property at issue is near Highway 94 and is truly the gateway to Missouri’s German Heritage Corridor. The proposed rezoning would introduce high-density suburban housing development, and possibly apartment complexes, in this area. Such development would obviously mar the visual landscape, severely affect enjoyment of our county’s beautiful countryside and undermine efforts to link the area’s trails (Great Rivers Green-way, the Katy Trail and Busch Conservation Area) with their unique historical and cultural sites.

Cultural or heritage tourism is one of the leading income-producers for Missouri. If we are to implement a comprehensive interpretive area, dedicated to exploring our German ancestry (which I share) and highlighting why our forefathers settled here, we need to keep that corridor as is, a largely conservation-oriented, natural landscape. An area with rich historical sites crucial to cultural and heritage tourism, not suburban residential development.

St. Charles County has plenty of apartment complexes, and if we need more, then line them along the barren fields of Highway 364, not within the pristine landscape that draws thousands of visitors to our county.

Our county officials should be lauded for their ongoing efforts to facilitate proper and healthy economic development while at the same time maintaining our rich natural landscape, greenways, conservation areas, parks and the accompanying cultural and historical heritage for all to enjoy. These remarkable assets are a primary reason that my family and countless others moved here.

My neighbors and others within Missouri’s German Heritage Corridor hope our county government will continue to make wise choices. The proposed rezoning of this land should be rejected. It is an unhealthy proposal fraught with adverse economic consequences for our county. Rejecting it will promote plans that will increase — not limit — revenue growth in our region.

William S. Belko (sbelko@mohumanities.org) is executive director of the Missouri Humanities Council.

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