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Heritage Development
- a Case Study

The Illinois and Michigan Canal experience

Developing the I & M Canal

Options for designation

Executive summary

Buffalo's Opportunity

The Idea of Heritage Development

The Economics of Heritage Development

Urban Design and Heritage Development

Exhibit of Historic Views

Group Discussion Sessions

A Summary of the Conversation

Content Analysis
(coming soon)

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Locktender’s house at # 6, Illinois and Michigan Canal. -  Courtesy of The Canal Corridor Association

Third Panel Session

The Illinois and Michigan Canal experience

Where there is no vision the people perish. This biblical maxim rings as true today as when it was first recorded over 2,000 years ago. But collective visions shared by members of a community evolve and change, as do the economic and social realities of community life. Periods of transition, when an inherited vision no longer seems pertinent, often produce the most stressful chapters in the history of a community or region.

For more than a decade now, residents of the communities that border the historic Illinois and Michigan Canal have been grappling with the challenges of regeneration and redefinition. The vibrant image of a thriving industriaI corridor, where, in Carl Sandburg’s words, “part of the valley is God’s and part is man’s,” had become sadly tarnished by the late 1970s. The quest for a new regional identity surfaced during a grassroots effort to establish the first National Heritage Corridor. Today, this “visioning” process continues, as the heritage corridor philosophy becomes more ingrained as a community development ethic, shaping the thinking and actions of many individuals and institutions throughout the canal region.

The region from Chicago at Lake Michigan to LaSalle-Peru on the Illinois River extends along a 120-mile system of inland waterways and contains one of the highest concentrations of Fortune 500 corporations in the upper Midwest. But as a maturing industrial corridor, it also suffers from many of the traditional problems associated with the “rust belt.” During the Iate 1970s and early 80s, industries which had employed four and five generations of the same family sent shock waves through the community by closing their doors permanently, often with little or no advance warning. Unemployment figures soared to nearly 25 percent. Within such a bleak economic environment, it is no surprise that residents were plagued by self-doubt and growing pessimism. In many ways the physical state of the original hand-dug canal — fragmented, partially abandoned, and badly in need of assistance – mirrored the conditions of the economically troubled region it had spawned l50 years earlier.

Seat of empire for the colonial French and the Native Americans before them, this ancient transportation corridor, the critical connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basin, today claims 42 municipalities, 18 Chicago neighborhoods, and sections of five Illinois counties. While the original canal and subsequent transportation improvements united the valley physically and economically, its shared heritage had become, at best, largely forgotten and poorly understood. A remarkable collection of cultural resources, pristine natural areas, and unparalleled recreational opportunities survived, yet most local landmarks suffered from long-term disinvestments and a general lack of public appreciation. Insensitive new development increasingly fragmented the rural landscape, and compromised the region’s unique character.

A multitude of local political jurisdictions balkanized the area, making it virtually impossible to deal with issues and opportunities on a regional basis. It was the grassroots drive for federal recognition of the canal and its surrounding landscape that finally provided a unique focus for local energy and a reason for the residents of the region to convene and explore their collective future. Out of these deliberations, the concept of a partnership park emerged, which allows the landscape to be seen as a whole, an environment where the development of one resource cannot take place without affecting others.

Within this holistic approach, development and conservation are seen as compatible as long as new development builds upon rather than destroys the unique character of a place by respecting older patterns of community and the natural environment. Integrated goals for the corridor encompass preservation and enhancement of cultural, natural, and recreational resources, broad public education, and economic revitalization. When President Reagan came to Chicago on August 24, 1984 to sign the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor legislation, a new vision for the region was officially validated by the federal government.

The defining mantra for the Illinois and Michigan Canal Corridor is “heritage.” Since preservation goals for the project are at a landscape scale, involving multiple owners and political jurisdictions within 450 square miles, it would be impossible to succeed without integrating economic development strategies within the overall program. This is an active transportation and industrial corridor, a living, working landscape, not a living history museum or traditional historical park. By using history as a major economic development resource, however, this philosophy charts fresh ground; while attempting to preserve the defining scenic, cultural and open space resources of the region, it improves the ability of the area to compete for ever more limited investment dollars and new jobs. Tourism, downtown and waterfront revitalization, and the re-use of abandoned and underutilized industrial properties are all strong elements in what is sometimes called “heritage development.” With shrinking federal, state and local budgets, soaring deficits and intense economic competition, capitalizing on the unique history, natural assets, and existing infrastructure of an historical region makes great practical sense.

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