HARTFORD, Conn. - More than a century after waves of Europe's working class left for jobs in New England mills and other prospects in the U.S., their homes, communities and traditions are providing fresh opportunities to promote tourism in Connecticut.
Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, French Canadian, Polish and other immigrants labored in factories that made silk in Manchester, thread in Willimantic, hats in Danbury and numerous other Connecticut mill towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Economic development officials now want to tell the immigrants' stories to draw tourists.
Kip Bergstrom, deputy economic development commissioner, said other Northeast states can boast a similar history of ethnic and national groups, but Connecticut's small size lets visitors see much in a compact state.
"We have the whole world represented in Connecticut," he said
As states compete fiercely for tourist dollars, marketing officials are looking for any angle to promote their communities. In Connecticut, tourism generates about $11.5 billion in spending, $1.15 billion in state and local tax revenue and employs nearly 111,000 workers, according to 2011 statistics, the most recent.
Two phases are planned for Connecticut's project. The first, which goes through mid-June 2013, will document the historical links between people of various ethnic communities and their neighborhoods, buildings, shops and other sites. The second will use the stories already developed to market communities in materials ranging from brochures to smartphone apps.
Mary Donohue, executive director of the Manchester Historical Society, said historic preservationists in Connecticut have worked with scholars to identify African-American historic sites and partnered with the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford to identify historic synagogues, provide tours and highlight Jewish-owned farms and resorts.
European immigrants who arrived during the Industrial Revolution will not be the only focus of cultural tourism. Indian sites dating back centuries or more recently established Latino communities also will be included. And New Canaan's Modern Homes designed by famed architects such as Philip Johnson are marketed with state money linked to cultural tourism, said Janet Lindstrom, executive director of the New Canaan Historical Society.
Manchester, where former silk mills have been redeveloped into apartments and are part of a historic district, can be a "gold mine" for tourist-related activities, Donohue said.
"Our job is to heighten our profile and promote it," she said.
Donohue said Manchester's historic sites or New Britain's Polish churches also are close to stores and restaurants.
"If you can find someplace to shop, you're good to go," she said.
Mary Dunne, an architectural historian at the state Historic Preservation Office, said history can be interpreted in many ways beyond the factories of Connecticut's manufacturing rust belt.
"It's important to stress that while we want the sites to be historic, we're talking about restaurants, beauty parlors, festival sites that tell the stories of people in the communities," she said.
Bergstrom said the state's Freedom Trail, which celebrates how 19th century black Americans escaped slavery and found freedom in Connecticut, served as a model for other forms of cultural tourism in the state.
Carol Shull, interim keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, said generating tourism revenue has the added benefit of boosting historic preservation because "communities see there's a reason to preserve their historic places."
The National Park Service posts 54 online travel itineraries promoting 2,500 sites of the National Register of Historic Places to tap into a growing interest in cultural and historic tourism, she said.
And Cheryl Hargrove of HTC Partners, a Washington, D.C., consulting group focusing on cultural and heritage tourism, said more than three-quarters of Americans who travel include some kind of cultural or heritage-related attraction to their holiday. For example, literary tourism is used to lure book enthusiasts to authors' homes, she said.
Cultural tourism is broad, including just watching an artist at work, Hargrove said.
"People want to go someplace different, they want to learn something different, they want to connect to their roots and their interests," she said.