Tourism industry getting ready for sesquicentennial

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 3, 2012

Local tourism and hospitality purveyors are among those looking with anticipation at Civil War sesquicentennial events planned for Vicksburg and the area in the next 12 months, even as the revenue boost provided by the extended refueling outage and upgrade at Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Station in nearby Claiborne County continues.

“History is good business today,” Dr. Ben Fatherree, president of the Friends of Raymond, told a group of marketing professionals last month, and Raymond will anchor one of the largest draws to the area as the nation’s observance of the 150th anniversary of the war turns to Mississippi and the pivotal Vicksburg Campaign.

Local events include commemoratives and conferences, concerts and conflict re-enactments and are expected to bring thousands of people to the city.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

The Vicksburg National Military Park will be a centerpiece of interest. Living history programs began Saturday and will continue through July 28 at reconstructed fortifications in front of the Visitor Center off Clay Street, said Rick Martin, operations manager for the VNMP.

“We were extremely busy last weekend — we always tend to be busy over Memorial Day weekend — and had a lot of visitors from outside Mississippi,” he said. “I can’t predict yet about what kind of visitor numbers we’ll see but gas prices are better so that usually means people are going to be traveling.”

Bess Averett, executive director of the Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park, said Vicksburg’s attractions will be “huge” draws in the coming year, and that sesquicentennial events in other areas around the South have brought soaring revenues to their communities, including sales tax collections.

“There’s a great deal of interest focused on the sesquicentennial,” at federal, state and local levels, said Bill Seratt, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. “Locally we’ll be helping present programs for the park and our Tapestry program (next spring) will focus on the time period of the Siege of Vicksburg.”

Recent reporting by the VCVB indicates more than a 36 percent increase in hospitality tax collections between March 2011 and March 2012 and occupancy rates for April of 72.4 percent, up 16.2 percent from the previous year. Much of the increase is attributed to the Grand Gulf outage, Seratt said at a recent VCVB meeting, but added that other tourism destinations in the state also are reporting hospitality tax collection increases.

“Everyone is predicting a spike in business but no one has quantified that,” Seratt said regarding predictions of visitors drawn by the sesquicentennial and their spending.

Notable Civil War sites such as Shiloh, Tenn., and Corinth have already held sesquicentennial observances with re-enactors, historians, musicians and others. Locally, events scheduled or in the planning stages include:

• Battle re-enactments in Raymond, Oct. 19-21. Sponsored by the Friends of Raymond, featuring the Blue-Gray Alliance of re-enactors, up to 5,000 participants are expected along with thousands more visitors, family members and observers. Many are expected to secure hotel rooms in Vicksburg — with resulting boosts to restaurant and local shop revenues — because of the presence of the Vicksburg National Military Park, Fatherree said.

• The national conference of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, to be held in Vicksburg July 16-21, 2013. Vicksburg beat out Gettysburg to get the booking, said William Mathews, lieutenant commander of the John C. Pemberton Camp of the SCV, adding the convention will be “a boon to the city” and is expected to attract 600 to 700 delegates plus their family members.

• The signature events of Vicksburg’s sesquicentennial observance, will be at the VNMP on Memorial Day weekend. Still being planned, special programs are expected to include candlelight tours and living history demonstrations; programs that explore the roles of slaves, freedmen and African-American troops, engineering and the battlefield and the critical importance of the river; and free public concerts featuring the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, a military band and a choral group.

The VNMP was established by Congress in 1899 as a memorial to the 1863 campaign and siege of Vicksburg. Often called “the art park of the world,” the VNMP features nearly 1,400 monuments, markers, tablets and plaques that commemorate the military action, the leaders and the troops.

After the park’s establishment, Union and Confederate men who fought here returned to pinpoint sites for the placement of markers and battle plaques.

Amid the sesquicentennial planning, work to restore three key areas of the Vicksburg battlefield continues — Phase I along Union Avenue near the Illinois Memorial and Shirley House; Phase II on the South Loop near the Kentucky Monument; and Phase III near Graveyard Road and Union Avenue — said VNMP Superintendent Mike Madell.

The project involved removing trees, brush and undergrowth to restore to their 1863 appearance the sight lines and terrain of the battlefields, promote the park’s interpretation of the conflict and enhance the visitor’s understanding of the battles and siege. The removed trees were hauled to a lumber mill for salvage by the contractor, helping the park keep down the cost of the restoration, while brush and other unusable vegetation was burned on site, Madell said.

Work on Phase III is set to begin this week or next, while Phase I is 99 percent complete and Phase II 90 percent. “There may be a little grading and reseeding still needed,” he said.

In addition, the state of Iowa has appropriated $320,000 to repair and restore the Iowa Memorial on the South Loop, Madell said. The funds will be available July 1, though work is not expected to begin until after the heat of summer, he said.

“The goal is to rededicate the memorial next spring as part of the Memorial Day program,” Madell added.