Aug 5th, 2003 @ 10:54 am | Author: Ellen-Earle Chaffee
We had a meeting last week at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, North Dakota. The Center and nearby Fort Mandan are absolutely first-rate experiences in every way. Be sure to put them near the top of your list for a visit.

The number of vehicles in the parking lot and diversity of license plates amazed me. The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial is having huge impact on Missouri River tourism. Dave Borlaug, president of the foundation that operates the center, told us that visitors on July 5 alone came from 37 states plus Norway and Japan. And the true bicentennial date for this part of the trip is not until next year.

A young guide told us that the center and its visitors had made major changes in the Washburn community. Retail business is booming. The center provides quite a few good jobs. People are getting in the spirit of things, and the sense of community and pride are growing. She even told us that she was learning much more about this part of history, and gaining a greater interest in history generally, than she had in school.

We also learned that the Custer center south of Mandan, the Medora Foundation, and this center have formed a partnership to promote visitors to all the sites. Borlaug pointed out that the three sites have strong ties with six legendary Americans: Captain Lewis, Captain Clark, Sacagawea, General Custer, Sitting Bull, and Theodore Roosevelt. As interest in American frontier history grows around the world, we have much to show and share.

I learned much from this experience. First, there is a public appetite for "the way America used to be," which is how much of North Dakota remains. Although the Bicentennial gives parts of North Dakota an extra kick right now, it is also introducing thousands of people to our great state. They will promote us and many will return. I have no doubt that the Sheyenne Valley will be an increasingly popular destination.

Second, the "North Dakota secret" is out. This is a great place with nothing to apologize for. Let us vow that North Dakotans will not be the last folks around who have figured that out.

Third, there are right and wrong ways to develop an attraction, develop a community around an attraction, and portray an image. The right way is the only good way, even though short cuts may look very attractive at the time.

Fourth, it really does work to form partnerships with others to pursue common goals. It takes extra work, and it may seem odd to cooperate with groups that seem like they would be your competitors. But it really does work.

Fifth, it truly is a very, very small world, and we must know, understand, and appreciate each other. The explorers needed the farming, hunting, and other talents of their native neighbors. Today, we have sent friends to Iraq and greeted visitors from Japan. Diversity is a fact of life and an asset. We need to learn from each other, as well as from history.