The Value of Public Participation: Challenge and Opportunity

By Sandy James, CIG
NAI Region 7 New Mexico State Representative

The Lincoln Historic Site in Lincoln, New Mexico lies in the Rio Bonito river valley, in the foothills of the Capitan mountain range. Although it is a highlight of the Billy the Kid National Scenic Byway, it isn’t somewhere you would easily find on the way to somewhere else. Visitors who come here make plans to be here.

LincolnNM_Courthouse

Lincoln County Courthouse where Billy the Kid was held. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The site is significant as the setting for the infamous Lincoln County War of 1878 and the shooting of Sheriff William Brady, gunned down in broad daylight in the middle of the village’s only street. Visitors walk that same street today, looking for stories of this country’s Wild West days and the legendary Billy the Kid’s escape from the courthouse. Lincoln’s stories are only part of the violent, darker side of New Mexico’s heritage; in the late 1800’s much of the New Mexico Territory was just as wild and lawless as the town of Lincoln and guns and bullets were often how folks took care of business.

The Torreon, one of Lincoln Historic Site’s many original buildings. Built in the 1850s, the tower provided shelter and a defensive structure for Hispanic settlers during Apache raids.
Photo – Charles Ruberson

Lincoln Historic Site is unique in that the site, its land, buildings, and museums are part of a living, active, present-day village and actually comprise 40% of the village. Even half of the first village cemetery is on the historic site’s state-owned land. It is also a National Historic Landmark and is part of both a National and County Historical zone.

Maybe you can imagine the challenges of administering and preserving a culturally significant historic site that is inextricably woven into an active community. There is a county historic preservation board comprised of locals whom the site manager coordinates activities with. There are, of course, the federal, state, and county regulations for building and maintaining structures in an historic zone. As in any community, there is a diverse range of individuals and opinions. Community involvement in managing the site is inescapable. How to make that involvement productive rather than frustrating is a task that requires creativity.

Any interpretive site will have stakeholders. Most of us would probably agree that engaging those stakeholders is important. And some of us may have had an experience when trying to do this didn’t go so well. Public information meetings can turn contentious and community members might respond with suspicion and resistance to our brilliant plans for managing our site. As important as it is, securing community buy-in isn’t easy – it takes much more than a few public information meetings. Sometimes it may seem like running a site independent of community input or just forcing a plan through is faster and easier. But in the end, taking the time to build a positive relationship and consensus within the community is worth the time and effort.

Tim Merriman, our former NAI Executive Director, offers 5 great reasons for creating an environment of positive community involvement on his Heartfelt Associates blog:

  1. The public sees our communities and organizations holistically. If one volunteer, partner or neighbor offends or mistreats a tourist or client, they might all get the blame. People don’t often notice when they cross boundaries or see a new type of nametag. They just know they are in Yellowstone or Sedona and organizational lines are blurred. Meeting regularly with logical partners and collaborators will help create new and expanded opportunities for guests/tourists with positive benefits for everyone. Training together helps to build a stronger sense of community among organizations that makes it easier to meet and discuss the potential for collaboration.
  2. Tourists seek interesting, quality experiences and usually that includes attractions like parks, zoos and museums, food providers, lodging and specialized transportation. When those are thoughtfully packaged and planning is collaborative, the experiences are better, more memorable and likely to make a lasting connection with the guest.

To read more:  Tourism Collaboration Should Be Easier – 5 Reasons to Collaborate

And how do we go about doing this? National Park Service’s Heritage Preservation Services lists some points to consider: determine your goals for public participation, identify the individuals in the community you need to reach out to, figure out what kind and level of public participation you want, decide how you will get people involved and how you will keep them involved. Some relevant questions to ask are: what do you want from the community? What will you give to the community? Do you want active or passive community involvement?

To read more: Public Participation in Historic Preservation Planning

Lincoln Historic Site, New Mexico Historic Sites, and the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs are working to strengthen community connections in Lincoln. For instance, when community members approached the Site Manager to ask if the annual San Juan Day celebrating the completion of the Mission could be resumed in the San Juan Mission, a church built in 1887 and now owned by the state, they received permission starting again on June 24th of this past summer. Funerals, weddings, and Christmas mass can also be held in the church.

Like all sites, Lincoln is understaffed and depends on local volunteers to supplement staffing needs and help with preservation projects. Two of the site’s museums, the historic Tunstall Store and the Dr. Woods House, are staffed totally by volunteers during the peak tourist season of April through October.  This becomes a challenge when there are only 50 residents in the village.

Despite the challenges, Site Manager Gary Cozzens is committed to building a relationship with the Lincoln community. What has he found to be the most effective? When he and the site rangers simply walk down the street and just talk, face-to-face, with the neighbors.

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