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Sesquicentennial: Gearing up for Civil War party

Impact from cultural tourism hard to gauge

The state will offer many new Civil War offerings during the 150th anniversary of the conflict, including a renovated Shirley House (background), a key landmark of the Vicksburg National Military Park.

The state will offer many new Civil War offerings during the 150th anniversary of the conflict, including a renovated Shirley House (background), a key landmark of the Vicksburg National Military Park.

The state is gearing up on multiple fronts for tourists coming for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, to be commemorated through 2015. Officials are confident that Mississippi will see a large number of visitors flock in for the numerous planned events.

However, how many will come and what the economic impact will be is anyone’s guess.

“Tracking how many cultural and heritage tourists who will come to our state for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is nearly impossible to gauge,” said Sarah McCullough, Cultural and Heritage Program manager at the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA). McCullough pointed out that even at venues such as the Vicksburg National Military Park, not all visitors register, nor are they surveyed to find if they came to Vicksburg primarily for the battlefield, gaming or some other reason. “All we know is that the impact of cultural and heritage tourism related to the Civil War is bigger than the numbers show,” she added.

According to figures supplied by the MDA, in 2009, the most current year available, visitation to Mississippi’s Civil War battlefields at Brice’s Crossroads, Corinth/Shiloh (just across the state line in Tennessee) and Vicksburg totaled approximately 1.185 million, with almost half of those (584,105) from Vicksburg.

Of all tourists, those interested in cultural/heritage offerings represent the most attractive demographic. A national study from the Travel Industry of America and the Smithsonian found that the average cultural tourist spends on average $623 per person per trip (excluding travel costs), compared to $457 per person per trip for other tourists.

McCullough pointed to another finding of the survey — 44 percent of those surveyed said shopping was an important component of their visit. And of those, 70 percent said they wanted to buy locally — they were looking for items they could not find at home.

“That’s good news for our local merchants and Main Streets across the state,” McCullough said.

Bill Seratt, Executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau

Bill Seratt, Executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau

Bill Seratt, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the draw of the Civil War extends well beyond the battlefields.

“People still come for the battlefields, but they want to see more,” Seratt said. “They want to see how the civilians lived before, during and after the war.”

Seratt is currently wearing another hat. He is the chairman of the Mississippi Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission. Established by an act of the Mississippi Legislature, the group’s mission is to promote the events planned for 150th anniversary of the war. It is composed of tourism professionals, economic developers, historians/preservationists and public officials.

Earlier this month, the commission unveiled its new website (www.mscivilwar150.com) at Mississippi State University, home the U.S. Grant Association and the correspondence, military and government papers, and other important materials of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Mississippi State staff not only created the commission’s new portal, they did it for free. This was a coup as the only funding the commission has received is $19,000 from the MDA and a $1,000 grant from the Starkville-based U.S. Grant Association.

Seratt will be on the road after New Year’s when he will travel to Washington to meet with the state’s congressional delegation concerning an ambitious Civil War-related project.

In November, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) co-sponsored the Champion Hill, Port Gibson and Raymond Battlefield Addition Act. The legislation would authorize NPS to acquire approximately 10,000 acres of property determined to be significant to the preservation of the Civil War battlefields in those areas and part of the larger Vicksburg campaign trail. The land is located in Claiborne and Hinds counties, and encompasses several historic structures such as the Shaifer House at Port Gibson and the Coker House at Champion Hill near Bolton. NPS would assume the maintenance and security responsibilities for these structures once they are included in the military park.

That bill is on hold, however. Chris Gallegos, press secretary for Cochran, said there was not a bill available to use as a vehicle for the legislation. With the new Congress coming in, Cochran plans to reintroduce the bill.

Seratt said he is anxious to hear where that bill stands early next year.

He and others in Vicksburg are also anticipating the rededication of the only surviving structure on the Vicksburg battlefield. Renovations to the nearly 180-year-old Shirley House, which has been closed for nearly a half-century, began earlier this year, and Mike Mardell, superintendent of the Vicksburg National Military Park, said in a previous statement the he hopes to celebrate its opening in March or early April.

The house is getting a new interior, funded from a portion of $1.9 million in stimulus funding awarded to the park.

While preservation and commemoration is important for their own sake, Seratt is quick to point out that the sesquicentennial celebration is also about money.

“It’s economic development,” he said. “We want to drive traffic through all of the regions of the state and tell the stories of Mississippi’[s history and involvement in the Civil War.”


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