A United Nations designation for an area history center could help attract more than a quarter of a million more tourists to the region, prompting Warren County leaders to work on a long-range plan for the area around Interstate 71 and Wilmington Road.
Officials expect the designation of Fort Ancient Earthworks in northeastern Warren County as one of Ohio's first World Heritage sites.
Promoters predict attendance at the Fort Ancient site, managed by Dayton Natural History, could jump from about 25,000 to as much as 250,000, based on the experience at other world historical sites designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
“It’s the highest kind of honorary status for a cultural or natural site in the whole world,” said Mark Esarey, site superintendent for Cahokia Mounds, near St. Louis. That site attracted as many as 500,000 people a year after receiving the designation 30 years ago.
“It gets us a lot visitors. It gets us visitors from every state every year,” as well as 70 to 85 foreign counties, Esarey said last week.
The Fort Ancient site, off Ohio 350, offers hiking trails and overlooks, picnic areas and a museum devoted to 15,000 years of American Indian history in the Ohio Valley. It also has access to 18,000 feet of earthen walls built by the members of the Hopewell culture 2,000 years ago on a hilltop terrace overlooking the Little Miami River.
The Ohio History Connection and National Park Service are polishing up the application, bundling a handful of Ohio sites to UNESCO.
The designation — held by more than 1,000 sites worldwide, but none in Ohio — is expected to stimulate economic development and cultural enrichment.
“Cultural tourism is one of the largest and fastest-growing global tourism markets. Culture and creative industries are increasingly being used to promote destinations and enhance their competitiveness and attractiveness,” according to UNESCO.
With this type of tourist attraction anticipated after the designation — possibly in 2018 — the Warren County Regional Planning Commission has begun a year-long process designed to produce a plan for land use, road improvement and economic development strategies for the mostly rural, undeveloped area, west of Wilmington in Washington Twp., Warren County.
The area includes nearly 400 acres owned by the University of Cincinnati.
After about a decade of preparation, Fort Ancient, Dayton Society of Natural History, the Ohio History Connection and the National Park Service are honing the World Heritage Site application to UNESCO. It includes eight other sites known collectively as the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks.
“Once the U.S. makes a nomination, the final decision is made by the World Heritage Committee, composed of 21 countries elected from all those who have signed the World Heritage Convention. We strive to submit only high-quality nominations that have the best chance of success, but not all nominations are successful, particularly on the first try,” Phyllis Ellin, a historian with the National Park Service, Office of International Affairs, said in an email.
Beyond Fort Ancient
In addition to the potential for For Ancient to become a worldwide tourist attraction, the future of the area around the Wilmington Road interchange will be linked to how other area property owners develop their land.
Jack Blosser, site superintendent at Fort Ancient, said a piece near the interchange could be redeveloped as a Native Arts Interpretative Center, due to limitations in developing the Fort Ancient site without “destroying something in the ground.”
The corridor includes a 383-acre farm owned by the University of Cincinnati, the largest property owner in that area. The university purchased the farm “in 2001 as a land bank for a potential regional campus at some point in the future,” M.B. Reilly, the university’s director of public relations, said in an email.
“Subsequent downturns in the economy, business and the overall economy forestalled the near-term possibility of pursuing this option,” Reilly added.
UC expects to join in the planning process, but Reilly indicated “the university has no development plans for the acres we own, nor do we plan to sell it.”
Another large landowner is Schumacher-Dugan, a developer linked with projects including the Union Centre interchange in West Chester.
Larry Schumacher, president and CEO, said he attended a meeting earlier this year about the interchange seeing additional traffic headed to Fort Ancient.
“That would be just a wonderful thing,” he said.
However, Schumacher said the lack of sewer service in the area was a major deterrent to development around the interchange.
“If it happened in 10 years, I ‘d be happy, but I’d also be extremely surprised,” he said.
As the process moves forward, Blosser cautioned against overlooking the importance of preserving the quality of life for people already living in the area.
“They want their tranquility,” he said.
Warren County’s plan would look decades into the future. Staff is kicking off the process at the Olive Branch United Methodist Church on Wilmington Road on Dec. 3.