What began as a discussion in 1999 became a reality Monday when President Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management, which created the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area.
Congressman Parker Griffith, D-Huntsville, joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers at The White House on Monday as the bill was signed.
Former Congressman Bud Cramer, who retired in 2008 after serving in Congress for 18 years, first introduced the bill to form the Muscle Shoals Heritage Area in 2001.
"The Shoals has always proven to be a strong driver of our economy in North Alabama," Griffith said. "I am proud to see Congressman Cramer's work to grant National Heritage status to northwest Alabama and its surrounding areas be finalized. The Shoals is home to a rich and unique history that has impacted the cultural, educational and economic development of our entire country."
The Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area will include Wilson Dam, the W.C. Handy Home, the birthplace of Helen Keller, as well as the expanse of Colbert, Franklin, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan counties.
By being named a National Heritage Area, the Shoals can receive funds from the National Park Service to support publications and marketing for tourism, economic development, historic preservation and other related opportunities. There are 37 National Heritage Areas in the country.
The Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area is the first in Alabama.
Colbert County Tourism Director Susann Hamlin said the designation helps bring clout to the area. She said the National Park Service helps market territories that are part of the area.
"It means prominence," Hamlin said. "This will help our museums and any attractions related to arts. We've gotten recognition from various groups, but to be given this heritage area will make a big difference for us."
Hamlin said the designation fits perfectly with the goal of promoting the area's music heritage and projects related to it, such as the Roots of American Music Trail.
Debbie Wilson, director of the Lauderdale County Tourism Office, said many people have worked toward this designation throughout the years. She mentioned Nancy Gonce, a member of the music trail's project development team, among them. Wilson said the University of North Alabama, Griffith and Cramer also were integral to obtaining the designation.
"It's going to open a lot of doors for additional promotion on the national level and make a lot more people aware of the history we have, especially our music heritage," Wilson said. "It'll also bring more opportunities for grants."
Sue Pilkilton, director of the Helen Keller Birthplace museum in Tuscumbia, said Ivy Green is an example of the type of place that benefits from the designation.
"This brings attention to history and brings attention to tourism," Pilkilton said. "That additional tourism means more people eating in restaurants, staying in hotels and buying gas locally, so it really benefits everybody.
"Not everyone can say that they're just so rich in history and heritage, but that's definitely something the Shoals has."
Griffin said the local coordinating entity for the Muscle Shoals Heritage Area is the Muscle Shoals Regional Center at UNA. It will be responsible for preparing a management plan, submitting an annual report of expenses and income, encouraging economic development, serving as a catalyst for the implementation of projects and programs among partners in the heritage area and making grants to and entering into cooperative agreements with the state.
"The heritage area will create jobs and increase property values for our rural economies across North Alabama," added Griffith. "With unemployment numbers breaking 22-year-old records, this is a great opportunity to jump-start the struggling economies of the Tennessee Valley."
Bernie Delinski can be reached at 740-5739 or bernie.delinski@TimesDaily.com.
Tom Smith can be reached at 740-5757 or tom.smith@TimesDaily.com.