Approximately 50 people gathered at the Wykoff Community Center on Tuesday evening, Oct. 30, to offer input and options for the sustainability of Historic Forestville as the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) explore ways to maintain, sustain and grow the vintage village's programs.

Tom Ellig, Minnesota Historical Society's Southern District Manager, and John Crippen, Director of Historic Sites and Museums, stood before the crowd and posed questions regarding what can be done for the site in light of flat state budgets.

Ellig opened, "The current reality we're facing and thinking about is how to position the site to grow into the future. State budgets are at least flat, but attendance at Historic Forestville is relatively stable at 11,000 people per year. That's not enough to drive growth, so how do we get people to come to the site?"

Crippen and Ellig assured the attendees that MHS is not considering closure of any historic sites because "it sets the site back about five years every time we close it."

Crippen stated that the site is among those for which MHS is seeking formal and informal partnerships to assist with operation or promotion, or both, depending on the resources available.

Audience members first brainstormed ideas for marketing Historic Forestville both locally and in the greater part of the state of Minnesota, and even beyond Minnesota's borders.

The first question of the evening concerned why visitors to the park and the historic site must pay a separate fee for admission, even though the historic site is located in the park, both owned by the state, and second, whether the historic site's interpreters could promote the site in the campground, as numerous campers have arrived at the site and said that they were unaware that the village is a part of the park's offerings.

Some meeting attendees suggested that the historic site be marketed through area chambers of commerce, others considered what might become of the site if more camping supplies were available at the gift shop, and still others mused as to what might happen if parking were available at both ends of Historic Forestville, instead of only from the park entrance side.

Ellig commended them for their enthusiasm, then posed changes to the program that could be implemented as a way of saving money, beginning with eliminating the interpretive staff and replacing them with tour guides or electronic audio tours. He cited "substantial savings" if the staff were to be either reduced and led by a guide or eliminated altogether and replaced with a guide or recording.

The suggestions were met with opposition, based on the concept that Historic Forestville's living history interpretive program is the heart and quality of the village's offering - a hands-on opportunity for students and families to experience a 19th century pioneer village and the lives of the people who lived there.

Gage Elementary School teacher Kim Colbenson Hill, disclosing that her father is George Colbenson, one of the interpretive staff, pointed out that the field trip she plans each year for her students - a diverse community of children with disabilities and language barriers - is one of the most important experiences she can provide them. It also satisfies state learning standards, including arts, language arts and social studies and that without the hands-on experience, she would quit bringing them.

"It provides a first-person and second-person narrative, meets common standards, and my students already stare at a computer screen or iPad or telephone screen hours out of the day," she added. "Taking them to Forestville teaches them respect, that 'these are my belongings, you cannot touch them.' Half of the students in my class have a parent with a prison record. There are no rules in their homes. There's a level of respect in the way that it's done now."

Interpretive staff member Alisa Wagner spoke next, noting she works with autistic students and her students could identify with the pioneer history because they could see the activities of the time period being carried out.

"I first went to Historic Forestville when I was in eighth grade, and the living history makes it real. I work with autistic children, and they could understand what it was about...coming through Historic Forestville, they said, 'This is your house.' If anything needs to be done, we should think of having fewer interpretive staff per day and set a start and end time," Wagner said. "I don't see the program lasting without it being what it is."

Staff members also objected to the prospect of allowing visitors to take self-guided tours due to the fragility of the items in the store and the likelihood that those items might not remain in place, as well as pointing out they feel the quality of the program would be stripped away.

Friends of Forestville member and Forestville founder's descendant David Foster stood up to remind the audience that without a means to support the programs, Historic Forestville's future could still be uncertain.

Historic Forestville Site Supervisor John Grabko posited that "visitors are dollars."

"If we grow our special events, think big, make it interesting enough to draw people using special events...next year, we have at least three new events, and if we think big and promote those events well without spending lots on marketing, we can increase our numbers," he said.

The evening's convention closed with "a lot of energy" still moving throughout the room. Ellig encouraged supporters to be vigilant and creative in their mission to maintain or improve the much-valued village's programming.

Lastly, there was a reminder that Friends of Forestville will host its annual meeting at The Village Square in Fountain on Dec. 13 at 6 p.m. Friends member Ernest Meyer, Jr., asked that anyone interested should plan to attend.