OP-ED: Let’s market R.I.’s heritage & history

A collaborative effort of the Catalyzing Newport Steering Committee, this op-ed was originally published in The Providence Journal on November 2, 2015.

On Sept. 30, Gov. Gina Raimondo’s office announced the three firms it has engaged to create a new tourism and business attraction campaign for Rhode Island. The state needs to embrace this opportunity, leveraging the independent spirit that created this state and incorporating its exceptional and unique history. It’s a natural brand for Rhode Island, one that its citizens live and breathe, and tourists come to experience.

We love our beaches, and we think our food culture is fantastic, yet still many parts of the country boast attractive coastlines, and the Food Network revolution inspires every state. But what no other states can claim is over 350 years of an authentic, rebellious and disruptive spirit that is embedded in our architecture and civic structures and represented in our independent thinkers, innovators, makers and civic leaders.

It’s our history, our most renewable resource — after all, we make more every day.

Rhode Islanders’ ingenuity helped to build this country. In 1644, Roger Williams obtained the first patent ensuring the separation of church and state. We became a colonial mercantile capital, which we must own, ugliness and all. We were the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. We are a center of design, the home of a world-class design school, the Rhode Island School of Design, created to encourage women to get patents for their innovations. Our founders were free thinkers, dissenters, rebels and innovators. They were exceptional in every sense of the word.

One example of Rhode Island’s exceptional quality is the piece of history President Obama brought as a gift on his 2013 visit to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. He chose to take a plaque that quoted George Washington’s famous “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport,” addressed in 1790 to Touro Synagogue, America’s oldest synagogue. The plaque reads: “Every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” That is an American ideal, and it started here. That is our brand.

We only need to look to our unique past to see a clear path forward in branding Rhode Island. We want a brand that is bold, seductive, and centered on Rhode Island as a place of origins, one that draws from our history, which is embedded in the values Rhode Islanders live by today.

Let us look to our remarkable institutions of history, heritage and culture, which preserve and make available our past for the public, Rhode Islanders and tourists alike. Nearly a million visits every year to the Newport mansions and museums by people from around the globe attest to the depth of interest in America’s and Rhode Island’s history.

Catalyzing Newport, a collaboration among some of those very institutions and initiatives in other cities, including Woonsocket and Providence, can tell us the real, authentic and living Rhode Island story that is engaging the world. Connecticut is “Still Revolutionary,” you can “Dream Big” in California, and things may be “Wild and Wonderful” in West Virginia, but only Rhode Island can claim to be exceptional because we have always been an exception.

We share these exceptional stories every day with visitors from around the corner as well as around the world. We are the front line of tourism in the state and we sincerely hope that we will be engaged in this exciting effort to attract businesses and visitors to our Rhode Island.

Elizabeth Francis is executive director of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. This piece was also signed by: Trudy Coxe, chief executive officer of the Preservation Society of Newport County; Norah Diedrich, executive director of the Newport Art Museum; C. Morgan Grefe, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society; Benedict Leca, executive director of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum; and Pieter Roos, executive director of the Newport Restoration Foundation for the Steering Committee of Catalyzing Newport.